BEIJING – Donald Trump vowed a more “unpredictable” foreign policy when he campaigned for president. Mission accomplished, if the mood in Asia ahead of his first presidential trip to the region is any indication.
Much like the prelude to a bruising typhoon, Trump’s upcoming visit has inspired fear, resignation, indignation, morbid curiosity – even, according to one South Korean politician, feelings of national disgrace.
During his first months as president, Trump, who will visit Japan, South Korea and China before attending regional summits in Vietnam and the Philippines, has blended moments of flattery with vows to rip up trade deals, destroy a sovereign nation with nuclear weapons and generally crash long-standing norms of diplomacy anywhere it suits his aims.
He has wined and dined the leaders of China and Japan, and been fawned over in return, and his shaky ties with South Korea’s leader have led to worries that Washington could take military action against North Korea without Seoul’s approval.
Looming over his entire trip is one of the strangest relationships in the world – an often surreal exchange of threats of annihilation between North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and Trump, who has also occasionally offered praise and dialogue.
It’s something of a marvel then that despite Trump’s unpredictability and the torpedoing of an Obama-era trade deal, there may actually be more continuity than change in Washington’s Asia policy.
“People joke that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. The same can be said for Trump’s Asia policy and relationships,” longtime Asia analyst Ralph Cossa said, referring to the notoriously complex German composer. “This will be put to the test when he goes to Asia, but I think the visit is likely to be more successful than many fear or predict.”
A look at some of the issues and leaders Trump will face during his trip, which begins when he arrives in Japan on Sunday:
‘Smart cookie’ in North Korea
Unlike most of his recent predecessors, Trump will not visit the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone that looks out over North Korea.
Still, his quarrel with the North’s ruler will dominate the trip.
Amid North Korean nuclear and missile tests and a standard barrage of belligerent rhetoric, Trump has veered from threats to unleash “fire and fury” on the North to calling Kim a “pretty smart cookie” and saying he’d be “honored” to talk, under the right circumstances.
Trump’s comments have caused both confusion and fears of war, especially in Japan and South Korea, but it is unclear how seriously to take declarations that don’t appear to be policy pronouncements.
North Korea accused Trump of openly pursuing what it called a “crazy strategy.” The state newspaper said in a commentary Thursday that the American president regards the strategy as a powerful means to advance his “America first” policy.
Trump likes to say that a soft policy by his predecessor, Barack Obama, has allowed North Korea to stand on the brink of a viable arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles that can hit U.S. mainland cities.
Despite his criticism, Trump has yet to distinguish his own approach from Obama’s, Bruce Klingner, a North Korea specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, told U.S. lawmakers in July.
“Trump’s policy of `maximum pressure’ to date has been anything but,” Klingner said, and sends mixed messages about whether Washington will pursue diplomacy or war to deal with Pyongyang.
‘Disgrace’ in South Korea
Trump’s ties with South Korea’s liberal president, Moon Jae-in, are causing some serious angst in the country.
Moon took office in May with hopes of reaching out to Pyongyang. But a parade of North Korean missile and nuclear tests has forced him to take a harder line.
While he has gone out of his way to emphasize coordination with Trump, a strain between the allies is evident.
Trump has suggested that Seoul should pay the entire cost of a U.S. missile defense system in the South that many there don’t even want. He also threatened to end a hard-won U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement that past American presidents had portrayed as an alliance bulwark.
Amid dueling threats by Trump and Kim Jong Un, Moon has issued pointed reminders that there can be no U.S. military action without Seoul’s consent.
South Koreans have long fretted about being pushed out of efforts to deal with the North – a fear so prevalent it has a name: “Korea Passing.” The headline on a recent editorial in the daily Dong-A Ilbo is telling: “If Moon becomes Trump’s `friend,’ Korea Passing will disappear.”
There has also been anxiety that Trump will spend more time in both China and Japan than in South Korea on his trip.
Ahn Cheol-soo, a South Korean opposition politician, said recently that it’s disappointing that Trump “stays just briefly in South Korea, the country directly involved in the Korean Peninsula problem that has the rapt attention of the world. This feels really bad – our country has been disgraced.”
‘The King of China’
Trump won cheers during the presidential campaign by attacking China for allegedly stealing American jobs and failing to use its influence to stop ally North Korea’s nuclear drive.
But as president, Trump has cozied up to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
“People say we have the best relationship of any president-president,” Trump recently told Fox Business Network, referring to Xi, whom he called “a very good person.”
“Now, some people might call him the king of China. But he’s called president,” Trump said.
Trump has, in some ways, been good for the ruling Chinese Communist Party, according to Robert Dujarric, an Asia expert at Temple University Japan, because he has raised global doubts about Washington by undermining institutions that serve U.S. interests and impede those of China.
Trump, for instance, pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal Obama negotiated with 11 Pacific Rim countries that was pitched, in part, as a way to counter China.
During his trip, Trump may push China on trade barriers and to better implement U.N. sanctions on North Korea. But he can expect a royal reception in Beijing, including fawning press coverage and grand ceremonies aimed at boosting his impressions of Chinese power.
‘Influence’ in Japan
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be the Asian leader most confident in his relationship with Trump.
He was one of the first to pay court to President-elect Trump, eager to forge a bond with Tokyo’s crucial ally. Trump, in turn, has raised an issue important to Abe: North Korea’s past abductions of Japanese citizens.
There’s worry in Tokyo about Trump’s tough talk on trade, and the possibility that U.S. military action against North Korea could endanger Japan. But Abe has generally avoided confronting Trump, at least in public.
From golf to private dinners to an audience with the emperor, Trump’s Japan “visit is designed to not only offer visual evidence of the close partnership, but also to avoid any uncomfortable issues, such as trade,” Daniel Sneider, an East Asia specialist at Stanford University, wrote recently.
Abe’s “senior advisers claim to wield an influence over Trump that is the envy of other U.S. allies,” Sneider said. “But that relationship depends on Abe consciously avoiding any challenge to Trump’s policies. Does his influence disappear the moment he crosses Trump?”
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