South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-in does not have the personal equation with Trump that Abe enjoys.
As US President Donald Trump began his five-nation Asia trip over the weekend, after a stopover at Hawaii where he visited the US Pacific Command, which covers the Indo-Pacific region up to India, the US state department highlighted three key priorities – denuclearisation of North Korea, promoting free trade and a free and open Indo-Pacific region and the US need to reassure its allies and partners.
Besides state visits to Japan, South Korea, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam and finally the Philippines, Mr Trump will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit at Da Nang, Vietnam, and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in the Philippines. He will address the Vietnamese National Assembly and the Apec CEO Summit. After initially planning only a bilateral visit to the Philippines, Mr Trump will now stay for the EAS there. He will meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi there, among other leaders. But whether Mr Trump is able to relate America’s strategic obje-ctives, as outlined by state department, to his bilateral diplomacy and messaging at the two summits remains to be seen. First, a quick look at his bilateral forays.
In Japan, he gets the full treatment, including a meeting with Emperor Akihito. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, reinvigorated after a landslide win in a general election, embodies a muscular approach to countering Chinese maritime expansionism and power play. He was among first leaders to visit the US within weeks of Mr Trump assuming office early this year. Through a mix of flattery, announced investments in the US and golf, he established good chemistry with Mr Trump. The Japanese hope that Mr Trump stays on message as they worry about US flip-flops on North Korea and the debunking of multilateral trade agreements.
Japan convened a meeting of the 11 rema-ining members of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), from which Mr Trump withdrew, hoping to save the institution and lure the US back in the future. The TPP was a part of President Barack Oba-ma’s strategy, rejected by the US Congress, via institutional means to contain the Chinese dominance of regional and global markets. Japan may announce more investments in the US to pacify Mr Trump’s tirade against trade imbalance — a leitmotif in Trumpian thought.
South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-in does not have the personal equation with Mr Trump that Mr Abe enjoys. China has also been throwing him a lifeline after pillorying South Korea for deploying the THAAD anti-missile defence. Chinese President Xi Jinping meets him in Vietnam, on the sidelines of Apec. China targeted a South Korean company with department stores in China simply because some THAAD batteries were deployed on its golf course. Mr Trump will visit Camp Humphreys to “thank” US soldiers deployed in South Korea. His address to the National Assembly will be significant for the message it sends to the North. So far Mr Trump has vacillated between pre-emptive war and diplomacy and China putting pressure on its ally. Significantly, polls indicate two-thirds of South Koreans want tactical nuclear wea-pons redeployed in their country to deter the North. Regardless of this extremely serious security threat, now even endangering the US as North Korea increases its nuclear-capable missiles’ range, Mr Trump still berates the five-year-old Free Trade Agr-eement with South Korea, thus undercutting an alliance.
On the next leg Mr Trump will arrive in China. President Xi Jin-ping, like Mr Abe, has just been re-endorsed by the 19th party congress, allowing him to position allies in crucial slots and announce that China is entering a “new era”. The Asian dilemma centres on the US under Mr Trump re-pivoting or not away from the region. He appears to be seeking influence without strategic commitment, access to markets without adherence to WTO rules, containing China by outsourcing to regional powers, with likely US offshore balancing. Mr Trump would seek a firm Chinese assurance on squeezing North Korea, including by oil embargo and a trade rebalance and end to predatory trading practices and intellectual property poaching, into which the US trade representative is already enquiring. The Chinese will offer tactical trade and investment concessions, the usual purchase of more civilian transport planes and even some loosening perhaps of its inbound investment policy. China’s People’s Dai-ly characterised Sino-US relations as “a blessing to the world”, which China’s neighbourhood would disagree with.
The Indo-Pacific regi-on would like Mr Trump to rise above bilateral haggling with China and articulate an alternative vision to China’s asser-tiveness and unilateralism. Ignoring sovereignty and financial viability concerns of others, China pushes its Belt and Road Initiative, whi-ch constitutes the foundation of a China-centric trade, investment and strategic architecture. It appears aimed to position China to rival if not replace US global hegemony by 2050. Fearing a US retreat, Japan has begun a regional counter-play by keeping the TPP alive minus the US and resurrecting the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and US), which last met at senior official level in 2007, but is now elevated to the political level as a grouping of Asian democracies committed to the rule of law and freedom of navigation and trade. India is a part of the Chinese-favoured Regional Com-prehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which has 10 Asean nations plus six neighbours — Japan, South Korea, China, plus Australia, New Zealand and India. India should try to straddle both.
Mr Trump’s Asia visit is of great interest to India, despite Prime Minister Modi only joining him in the Philippines. Mr Abe and Mr Modi must lure Mr Trump back to a strategic commitment that transcends rhetoric or occasional sailings or flights through Chinese-claimed waters or airspace. China’s rise needs to be balanced by a collective effort by Asian democracies. At the Asian Relations Confe-rence in 1947 in Delhi, months before Indian independence, Jawa-harlal Nehru welcomed Chinese participation and said that to China “Asia owes so much, and from which so much is expected”. Seven deca-des later, China must decide if it will be that force of benevolence that Nehru had envisioned or a disruptive power, which seeks hegemony. The US role is critical to that outcome.