President Trump is embarking on his longest and most ambitious foreign trip yet. Over the course of nearly two weeks, he will visit five countries in Asia, give major speeches, attend critical regional summits and meet with dozens of leaders. This would be a monumental undertaking for even the most experienced politician and White House, which Trump and his team are not.
To be fair, the president is not coming into this visit cold. In large part because of North Korea, the administration has invested more time and resources in Asia than any other region.
Only nine months into his presidency, Trump has logged more than 40 phone calls with Asian leaders, in addition to meeting 10 of them in person. To support this personal diplomacy, senior officials, including Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, have all traveled to the region. Meanwhile, rather than Iran, ISIS or Russia, Mattis has identified North Korea as America’s “most urgent threat to security.”
Despite these efforts, the region remains on edge about the administration’s commitment to America’s traditional leadership role in Asia.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement has fueled serious concerns about U.S. retrenchment, further exacerbated by an inconsistent and transactional approach to China that has made the United States look unprincipled and ready to trade away vital interests for the right price. All the while, Trump’s desire to reduce U.S. commitments and responsibilities overseas stands in stark contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambition to transform China into a global power.
Trump’s trip will therefore be a defining moment for whether the president and the administration can deliver on Asia. Watch the following three big story lines, which will determine if the region is reassured and put at ease by Trump’s visit or is left only further concerned that the era of Pax Americana may finally be ending.
‘America First’ or American leadership?
The day before Trump’s departure, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster outlined advancing “American prosperity through fair and reciprocal trade and economic practices” as a core goal for the trip. While this is hardly controversial in principle, in practice, it is much more worrisome to countries in the region.
In his first year as president, Trump has withdrawn from TPP, threatened to withdraw from the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement (KORUS) and signed an executive order asking relevant agencies to identify countries with which the United States has significant trade deficits, naming several in Asia (including China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam).
The fact that Trump is willing to go after U.S. allies like South Korea — even at a time of crisis on the Korean Peninsula — does and should have the region worried. Watch closely whether Trump’s message on trade, including the speech he delivers at the APEC CEO Summit in Vietnam, tilts toward a positive and cooperative approach that works for the region or sounds like a darker warning that no trade deals or surplus trading partners are safe from punitive action.
A China-centric or region-wide strategy?
Historically, Washington has vacillated about where China fits into its overall approach to the region. Asia hands often describe the debate as centering on the fundamental question of whether America gets Asia right by getting China right — or if it gets China right by getting Asia right.
The Trump administration’s Asia policy to date has yet to reconcile these two views. Trump has been relatively accommodating — even at times obsequious — of China and its leader. By all accounts, this fealty will be in full view while Trump is in Beijing.
Meanwhile, though, the administration has just publicly launched a new Asia strategy predicated on ensuring “a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” While not billed at such, there is no doubt that this effort to enhance ties with Asian allies, democracies and major partners is designed to present an alternative vision to a China-dominated region (usually referred to as “Asia-Pacific.”) In doing so, the Trump administration hopes to expand the geopolitical map to include the Indian Ocean, thereby incorporating India as a vital partner and diminishing both China’s geographic centrality and its relative power.
This harder line message toward Beijing will contrast sharply with the happy veneer of Trump’s visit to China. Listen to hear if a clear Asia strategy emerges over the course of the trip or whether it sounds like a muddle of mixed messages.
Uniting the world or isolating the United States?
Eliminating North Korea’s ability to threaten the United States with nuclear weapons is Trump’s cardinal priority in Asia. To date, the administration has had relative success — including with China and at the U.N. Security Council — bringing other countries along in the U.S.-led maximum pressure campaign.
This is becoming more difficult, however, as the administration increasingly clarifies that it will not accept outcomes short of full denuclearization, something most experts agree is impossible without regime change or war. With the possible exception of Japan, we should expect South Korea, China and countries in Southeast Asia to voice caution about, if not outright opposition to, military options on the peninsula. Look to see if Trump returns home with stronger pledges and seriousness of purpose in the region or, alternatively, faces growing resistance to his efforts on North Korea.
With peace and prosperity in Asia hanging in the balance, Trump will be walking on a tightrope during his entire trip. The world will be watching to see if he can keep his footing.
Ely Ratner (@elyratner) is the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Ashley Feng (@afeng79) is a research associate for China studies at CFR.