Trump in Asia

Trump's Asia-Pacific tour a test of US intentions in the region

Doubts hang over whether it has will to remain engaged in region

President Donald Trump and his wife departing from Hamburg, Germany, in July. The First Lady will accompany him on "at least part" of the Asia trip, said the White House.
President Donald Trump and his wife departing from Hamburg, Germany, in July. The First Lady will accompany him on "at least part" of the Asia trip, said the White House. PHOTO: REUTERS

President Donald Trump leaves for Asia on Friday, with a stop in Hawaii, where he will visit the Pacific Command headquarters to receive military briefings, likely in relation to North Korea.

North Korea is sure to be top of the agenda when he visits Japan, South Korea and China. A second key agenda item will be trade terms and market access for the US, particularly in China, as his administration seeks to "rebalance" trade relationships in which the US is in deficit.

He will be accompanied by his wife, Melania, on "at least part of the trip", said the White House.

Analysts are only cautiously optimistic about the trip, reflecting uncertainties over whether the US has the will to remain engaged in the region, or will allow it to slide into the sphere of influence of an increasingly assertive China.

At a media background briefing last night, a senior White House official tried to put to rest such doubts, saying Mr Trump's trip will be his longest foreign one to date.

He told reporters the trip would underscore Mr Trump's "commitment to longstanding US alliances and partnerships and reaffirm US leadership promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region".

"The narrative that there is uncertainty that the President is committed to the region is an odd one," he added, noting Mr Trump has made 42 calls to Indo-Pacific leaders, and hosted 10 since he took office in January. The trip would also be the longest to the region of any US president in more than 25 years, he said.

In South Korea, Mr Trump will likely visit Camp Humphreys, the US military base south of Seoul. He will address the South Korean Parliament to reassert the US' commitment to its ally.

Mr Trump, who apparently gets on well with President Xi Jinping, is likely to pressure China on North Korea as well as bilateral trade terms and market access.

But Mr Xi, emboldened by his re-election at the recent party congress, would likely exact a quid pro quo, wrote Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer at the Australian Defence Force Academy of the University of New South Wales in an e-mail. He added: "Trump's combative polarisation of American society and the rancour of the discourse in Washington cut the foundations of a soft power - the ability to attract others to be more like the United States."


  • Nov 5

    US President Donald Trump's first stop is Japan. He will meet American and Japanese service members, as well as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Mr Trump will also meet families of Japanese citizens abducted by the North Korean regime.

    Nov 7

    Arrives in South Korea for a bilateral meeting with President Moon Jae In. Mr Trump will visit American and South Korean service members, and speak at the National Assembly, where he will celebrate the US-South Korea alliance, and call on the global community to maximise pressure on North Korea.

    Nov 8

    Arrives in China for a series of bilateral, commercial and cultural events, including meetings with President Xi Jinping.

    Nov 10

    Travels to Danang, Vietnam, for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Economic Leaders' Meeting. He will deliver a speech at the Apec CEO Summit focusing on the US' vision for a free and open Indo Pacific region, and the importance of the region in advancing America's economic prosperity.

    Nov 11

    Travels to Hanoi for an official visit and bilateral engagements with President Tran Dai Quang and other senior Vietnamese leaders.

    Nov 12

    Arrives in Manila, the Philippines, for the Special Gala Celebration Dinner for the 50th Anniversary of Asean.

    Nov 13

    Celebrates the 40th anniversary of US-Asean relations at the US-Asean Summit and meet President Rodrigo Duterte and other leaders.

President Xi had "moved into this void with a condemnation of Western liberal values", he added.

Ms Shannon Hayden, associate director of the South-east Asia Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said countries in the region "will be sizing Trump up". "They will observe the contrast between China's highly choreographed 19th Party Congress last week that further consolidated Xi's position and Trump's own failure to pass any major legislation at home, despite majorities in Congress."

Dr Lynn Kuok, a non-resident fellow at Brookings Institution, said Mr Trump's withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership gravely hurt US credibility, and restoring the region's trust will take time. "Asia has for decades been insecure about US commitment to the region," she said. "But this insecurity takes place in a very different context today. China is stronger and more assertive than before."

"It will be important for President Trump to demonstrate personal commitment to a region worried about alliances and partnerships coming undone at whim and fancy," she added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2017, with the headline Trump's Asia-Pacific tour a test of US intentions in the region. Subscribe