But he gets a little credit for showing up
FOR those concerned about American neglect of Asia, it is an accomplishment of sorts that Donald Trump is coming to the region at all. A creature of habit, America’s president is uncomfortable spending nights away from his own bed. And now, with the first indictments in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the election that put Mr Trump in office, foreign policy is likely to have fallen even lower down his list of priorities. Yet on November 3rd Mr Trump begins a 12-day trip, his longest foreign excursion as president and his first to Asia. He will take in (via Hawaii) Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The first rule in Asian politics, where form trumps content, is just showing up. So far, so promising. What is more, although one of Mr Trump’s first moves as president was to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-country free-trade deal—“the greatest self-inflicted wound on American regional influence since the Vietnam war,” as Michael Green of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington puts it—little has yet come of Mr Trump’s threats to erect barriers to imports from Asian countries running surpluses with America (ie, nearly all of them). Nor has Mr Trump followed through on his vow to stop Japan and South Korea free-riding, as he saw it, on America’s defence guarantees.
America’s relationships in Asia remain vulnerable to Mr Trump’s Twitter feed. But as Aaron Connelly of the Lowy Institute in Sydney points out, Mr Trump and the bomb-throwers who promised a radical shift to an “America First” approach to foreign policy have made little headway. He puts that down to inexperience, the president’s feeble grasp of foreign affairs, the ease with which he is distracted and his failure to fill important foreign-policy positions with fellow travellers (or, often, with anyone at all). As a result, policy on Asia remains largely in the hands of centrists steeped in America’s long-standing alliances. Most notably, they believe in more or less the same approach—deterrence—as the previous administrations towards an increasingly troubling North Korea. American policy in Asia is on autopilot.
Some Asian leaders think they have the measure of Mr Trump. In Japan the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, intends everything to be sweetness and light. That starts with flattery, something Mr Abe understood from the start of his personal relationship with the American president. Mr Trump will learn that Tokyo’s department stores have stocked (exorbitantly marked-up) bottles from his Virginia winery to honour the visit. There will, of course, be golf. And Mr Abe will give Mr Trump trade goodies to take home, promising not only to buy liquefied natural gas from America but also to promote a network of terminals for its distribution across Asia.
Mr Abe’s aims are twofold. One is to prevent Mr Trump’s hostility to multilateral trade deals from poisoning the region’s trading relationships. Mr Abe is pushing hard to preserve TPP as a regional free-trade grouping without America. Its 11 surviving members gathered outside Tokyo shortly before Mr Trump was due there.
North Korea is the other pressing issue. As Japanese strategists see it, the North’s rapid development of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking American cities has made America as worried about an attack as Japan and South Korea, which have long been vulnerable to one. Mr Abe has just fought and won a general election partly on a platform of standing up to the rogue state. He is likely to push for changes to Japan’s pacifist constitution that legitimise Japan’s armed forces. To Mr Trump, he will present this as evidence that Japan is doing its bit, and as an inducement for America to continue to provide security and to pursue unflinching deterrence against the North.
Mr Trump’s Japan visit will probably go well. But his unpredictability still worries Japanese strategists. At least rhetorically, he has lurched between wildly different approaches to North Korea, at times suggesting that he could resolve all his differences with Kim Jong Un over a hamburger and at others implying he was ready to launch a pre-emptive attack. For now, Mr Abe’s mantra is, hold Mr Trump close.
Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s new president, intends to pursue the same approach, offering Mr Trump a state visit with all the trimmings. Yet, in contrast to Mr Abe, his personal relationship with Mr Trump is not easy-going. That is a concern to Mr Moon’s advisers. Though no sandal-wearing leftie—Mr Moon served in the special forces, and calls for stronger defences against the North—his progressive cast does not endear him to Mr Trump. Many of his countrymen are alarmed at the American president’s loose talk of pre-emptive war against the North, and think diplomacy should be given much more of a chance. Mr Moon’s people are nervous about what Mr Trump might say or tweet while in the country. Meanwhile, Mr Trump’s threats to tear up the five-year-old United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement undermine the assurances of solidarity made by his national-security team.
This equivocation is all the more striking because China seems to be trying to repair relations with South Korea. For months it has bullied the South for installing American anti-missile defences known as THAAD. Rather than accepting that they were needed to counter North Korea, China argued, solipsistically, that they were aimed at it. China punished South Korea with boycotts of its products and a ban on Chinese tour groups visiting South Korea.
But China’s president, Xi Jinping, has emerged from the five-yearly Communist Party congress with his authority cemented. Immediately afterwards, his government moved to restore cordial relations with South Korea. Mr Xi is due to meet Mr Moon on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit, a pow-wow in Vietnam on November 10th and 11th that Mr Trump is also attending. Mr Moon will affirm that South Korea does not plan more THAAD batteries for now, and will not join any wider security initiative aimed at China. Mr Xi might, in other words, be able to drive a bit of a wedge between America and South Korea.
As for Mr Trump’s stop in Beijing, flattery will prevail there, too. Mr Xi has prepared a reception fit for a monarch (China’s ambassador to Washington calls it a “state-visit-plus”). Mr Trump, who seems to get along well with strongmen, appears in awe of Mr Xi’s power. He referred to him as “the king of China” last month.
In truth, Mr Xi can afford to humour Mr Trump, once a China hawk, in part because Mr Trump has not been very hawkish in his dealings with China. Instead, Mr Trump has cosied up to Mr Xi, apparently in the hope that he would bring Chinese pressure to bear on North Korea. The American president has praised China for enforcing new UN sanctions barring North Korea from exporting textiles and limiting its imports of oil. Yet there is little sign that China is willing to take the one step that might change North Korea’s behaviour: cutting off its oil supply altogether.
As for trade, American business in China is agape at the skimpy agenda the administration has crafted for the trip. China is expected to announce some energy investments in Texas and the Virgin Islands. There might be orders for passenger planes, along with concessions on American credit cards, long in the works. But this would be small stuff. Instead of the American side bringing a list of specific demands, it is asking for a broad attitudinal shift by the Chinese government (ie, stop giving Chinese firms an “unfair advantage”). American bureaucrats, at Mr Trump’s behest, are conducting a formal investigation of predatory Chinese trade practices, but it is not due to report for months. No wonder China’s leaders deem the bilateral relationship to be as good as it has ever been—“a blessing to the world”, as the People’s Daily, a state-run newspaper, puts it.
Mr Trump’s trip is a missed opportunity. As Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues, the point at which Mr Xi has consolidated his power would have been the right one for an American president to explain how his country wants to preserve its interests in Asia without bringing on a clash. A discussion could have involved contingencies on the Korean peninsula, and avoiding conflict in the South China Sea. An administration more clear-eyed about what is at stake for America might have taken more seriously China’s “belt-and-road” initiative, linking Asia by land and sea to the Middle East and beyond.
Possibly, Mr Trump will offer a competing vision in the coming days along the lines proposed last month by his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, in which Australia, India, Japan and even Vietnam will help America counter China’s maritime expansion. But the idea is bankrupt if America is against free and open trade. What is more, Mr Trump has decided to cut his Asia trip short and so will miss the East Asia Summit in Manila, the main annual get-together for the region’s leaders. Mr Xi is attending.