President Donald Trump just embarked on his longest overseas travel so far. On his first journey to the region while in office he will stop in Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The trip is scheduled shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping reinforced his grip on power and heralded the beginning of a new era of China’s global role at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Almost a year after his elections, the region is waiting for a clear message – and Europe should listen closely.
The timing of the trip allows President Trump’s participation in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam, in addition to bilateral meetings. At APEC he is expected to lay out the cornerstones of his administration’s Asia strategy along the lines of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.” APEC is all about business and Trump is all about advancing U.S. economic prosperity. After Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the most important free trade agreement in the region that excludes China, the administration has yet to come forward with a credible alternative for U.S. trade policy and a strategy that underscores the U.S. economic foothold in Asia. It will be interesting to see whether Trump will be cajoled by military honors and state banquets in Beijing or return to his tough stance on China’s trade practices and economic assertiveness.
His remarks may also be indicative for the future of U.S.–European trade relations in a post-TTIP era. The most optimistic outcome for global free traders would be a clear commitment to WTO standards and agreed norms and rules. However, this is unlikely as Trump is not known for being an ardent supporter of a global free trade agenda. Failing to live up to the expectations of the region, which is looking for alternatives to growing economic dependence on China, could weaken the U.S. overall standing in the Asia-Pacific. Europe is currently negotiating free trade agreements with a wide range of partners in the region. U.S. absence in these debates is a strategic win for China, not for Europe.
The presidential presence in the region will be reinforced by three U.S. aircraft carrier groups, which, according to government officials, happen to be in the region. A joint military maneuver is under consideration that could serve as a signal of U.S. resolve to the North Korean leadership.
The Kim regime is angered by the heightened military presence in the region, although a month has passed without any additional nuclear or missile tests. This could be taken as a sign of moderation. Not pushing the envelope during the Chinese party congress could be regarded as a sign of accommodation of Chinese interests or of successful backchannel communication. It could be an indication of caution as the testing sites seemingly show significant weaknesses or because the technological advances in the missile program are not moving ahead as quickly as desired. But it could just as well be a sign of patience, as North Korea waits for the right moment to show the full potential of Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities. Trump’s visit could set the stage and serve as the ideal backdrop.
The North Korea question has hijacked the Trump administration’s Asia policy from the very beginning. Much of the presidential visit to the region will be dominated by signaling highest priority to the resolution of the crisis on U.S. terms. Trump will not only address American and South Korean soldiers at Camp Humphreys just south of Seoul, but during his visit to Tokyo will also meet with families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. At the same time, planning for a military strike against Pyongyang is being refined and it has been reiterated on many occasions by members of the Trump administration that “all options” are on the table.
European partners have to realize the imminence of the threat and start taking the Trump administration seriously. A military strike — albeit not the preferred solution — has become much more likely. European observers should pay great attention to Trump’s remarks in Tokyo, which has declared its commitment to the “all option” policy and has shown a great degree of support for a tough stance on Pyongyang, as well as to Trump’s address of the South Korean National Assembly. This will be one of the most challenging speeches of the entire trip in terms of striking the right balance between resolve and reassurance of the alliance, especially as South Korea–China relations are slowly recuperating. In light of the growing threat from North Korea, the South Korean government had agreed to install the U.S. missile defense system Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a move that angered China and brought diplomatic relations to a low point. Now, shortly before the Trump visit, China and South Korea have decided to disagree on the THAAD question but resume their promising economic relationship, which improves China’s strategic position.
East Asia Summit
President Trump initially planned not to seize the opportunity to also address the East Asia Summit — the most important regional political gathering, which will take place in the Philippines on November 13 and 14. After wide criticism about the signal his absence would send to the region, the last minute decision was made to add another day to his journey enabling his participation. This decision is far from trivial in a region anxious about China’s assertiveness and perceived U.S. retreat; it matters not only what the U.S. president does and says — it matters just as much what he omits. This year’s East Asia Summit will also see the first ever participation of the European Union with European Council President Donald Tusk as a guest of the host honoring the 40th anniversary of EU–ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) relations.
After Xi Jinping threw down the gauntlet on the question of competitiveness of political systems in his party congress speech, a joint U.S.–European presence at the EAS is an important – albeit symbolic – gesture to the region. It is an opportunity to show broad transatlantic support for defending the merits of the liberal international order in the Pacific. Now it is up to the Trump administration to make the most of it.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.