President Donald Trump is leaving his administration’s push to pass comprehensive tax reform before year’s end in the hands of his trusted deputies while he embarks this morning on a 10-day tour to Asia, where he’s expected to discuss, among other topics, the security threat that North Korea poses to both the region and to the world more broadly.
As Reuters points out, it will be the longest Asia tour by a US president since George H.W. Bush vomited on Japan’s then-prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, during a trip to Asia in 1992 just weeks before the New Hampshire primary. While Trump, whoso gastro digestive system is in far better shape, will likely not suffer the same embarrassment, the possibility of a diplomatic fiasco is high for obvious reasons. Meanwhile, tensions run high: to underscore the seriousness of the biggest problem at hand, two US strategic bombers carried out military drills over South Korea Thursday, the U.S. Air Force said, raising tensions with North Korea, which accused the US of carrying out simulated bombing drills near its territory. In a move that is sure to further trigger the Kim regime just as Trump touches down in the region, the US has sent three aircraft carriers to participate in unprecedented 3-way drills off the Korean penninsula. Thursday’s drills were first reported by North Korean state news agency KCNA on Friday, which described the exercises involving South Korean and Japanese fighter jets were a “surprise nuclear strike drill," Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, South Korean intelligence told local media that it had detected movement near one of the North’s missiles test-launch sites, activity that could be a sign of another test - what would be the North’s first since it launched an intermediate-range missile over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
To underscore the militant theme of the visit, Trump will first head to the military base at Pearl Harbor on Friday before arriving in Asia on Sunday, beginning his first trip to the region in Japan before heading to South Korea and China, then Vietnam and the Philippines. Trump will participate in two international summits. As NBC News notes, the president heads overseas during a period of decline for US influence in Asia - a sign of the abject failure of former President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy. While NBC says it’s unlikely that Trump returns from his trip with any clear wins, security in the Pacific has become one of the paramount issues of his presidency.
White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster hinted Thursday during an appearance at the White House press briefing that the president is unlikely to tone down his rhetoric toward North Korea on his upcoming trip to Asia, insisting that it is North Korea’s behavior, not Donald Trump’s heated words for Kim Jong Un, that have inflamed tensions.
“I don’t think the president really modulates his language. Have you noticed him do that? I mean, he's been very clear about it,” McMaster said Thursday at the White House press briefing. “I've been aware of the discussions about, ‘hey, is this inflammatory?’ And what's inflammatory is the North Korean regime and what they’re doing to threaten the world."
Trump has three primary goals during his trip, according to McMaster:
- Strengthening international resolve to denuclearize North Korea;
- promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region;
- advance American prosperity through fair trade and economic practices.
Of course, as NPR points out, trade policy will also be an important topic of discussion. While Trump yesterday praised his newly emboldened “partner” Chinese President Xi Jinping for his help in containing North Korea, the latter’s successful consolidation of power could increase tensions surrounding discussions of trade policy and security. And while Trump has expressed satisfaction with Xi’s efforts to bring the restive North to heel, McMaster emphasized that there’s more to be done.
"China is definitely doing more. But obviously it's not enough," McMaster said. "This isn't the United States or anyone else asking China to do us a favor. China recognizes it is clearly in China's interest — and all nations' interest — to denuclearize the peninsula.
Beyond North Korea, Jonathan D. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings' Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said Trump needs to articulate a broader policy governing the US’s relationship with regional powers.
"The real question now," Pollack said, "is whether or not you can, on any kind of a viable long-term basis, keep some kind of a larger strategic focus in mind, as opposed to being pulled into some immediate perception of potential crisis, for which the stakes are incredibly high."
One possible source of tension between Trump and Xi, who have maintained a surprisingly cordial public relationship, could be what US military commanders in the Pacific see as an increasingly aggressive Chinese air force and military presence.
Those looking for literal fireworks may be disappointed: Trump has said he won’t visit the DMZ during his visit to South Korea, but the US president and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in, will discuss imposing unilateral sanctions on the North.
In Danang, Vietnam, Trump will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which brings together leaders of 21 countries around the Pacific Rim. He'll also speak to a gathering of corporate executives being held alongside the summit. Trump is expected to discuss the important role Asia plays in the U.S. economy as well as the U.S. commitment to a free and open "Indo-Pacific region." Still, lingering resentments over Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 12-nation trade pact at the center of Obama's pacific agenda could complicate his trade talks in Vietnam. However, Trump's APEC speech will be an opportunity for the president to offer an alternative vision for U.S. engagement in the region.
Importantly, Russian President Vladimir Putin will also attend the APEC summit. The White House has not said whether Trump and Putin will meet one-on-one.
While Trump will join the 10-nation ASEAN summit, he is skipping a broader East Asia Summit that follows. Some observers say that's a missed opportunity for Trump to demonstrate US commitment to the region. But White House aides defended the decision, noting the trip is already running long.
"The president has to come back to work," one senior administration official told NPR. "We can't have him away from Washington forever."