Why you should care
Because it’s make-or-break time for U.S. foreign policy in Asia.
OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS
No American president has ever visited an Asia quite like the one President Trump will encounter when he arrives today. Nor has Asia ever met a U.S. commander in chief remotely like Trump. The outcome of this convergence is unpredictable, but holding our collective breath is probably in order.
The Asia waiting for Trump is in the midst of near revolutionary changes, and Trump will hear firsthand from leaders in China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.
China is simultaneously at the peak of its power and struggling with deep structural problems that could slow its rise and, if not addressed, cause political turbulence. At the just completed 19th Communist Party Congress, Xi Jinping, for all practical purposes, acquired dictatorial powers. The Chinese Congress confirmed him for a second five-year term as China’s leader, tapped no successor and enshrined in the Chinese constitution a reference to “Xi Jinping thought” — an honor previously accorded only to Mao and his successor, Deng Xiaoping.
At the same time, Xi is still struggling to stamp out corruption, the biggest political issue for China’s public, and to shift China’s economy from dependence on cheap exports to one driven by domestic demand — all with China’s growth rate of 6.9 percent at its lowest point in 25 years.
But these problems haven’t kept Xi from rushing boldly into the vacuum created by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Xi’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a big transformational program embracing nearly half of humanity and about 40 percent of global GDP — making Trump’s “America First” vision look small and unimaginative.
Asia’s expectations of Trump are best described as somewhere between confusion and alarm.
In Japan, meanwhile, newly re-elected Prime Minister Abe is laying the groundwork for his long-sought goal of removing post–World War II restrictions on Japan’s military. The U.S.-drafted Japanese constitution bars them from having a military but has been interpreted to permit forces for self-defense. With that flexibility, Japan has built one of the region’s most modern militaries.
Two years ago, Abe pushed through a law to allow military participation in “collective defense” exercises with allies. Now he is seeking a constitutional change that could open the way for more offensive action. He can probably get the required two-thirds vote in Parliament; the obligatory public referendum looks closer with about 30 percent in favor, 20 percent against and the rest undecided.
China finds Abe’s scheme alarming, although the rest of the region, concerned more about Chinese dominance, seems unworried.
On the Korean peninsula, both sides are arming up. The North’s drive toward a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile is well-documented. In South Korea, new Prime Minister Moon is pushing for the largest defense spending increase in a decade. At the same time, he continues to insist there must not be war on the peninsula and that the U.S. can take no military action toward the North without Seoul’s permission.
Trump will also visit Vietnam for meetings with leaders in Hanoi and to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Meeting (APEC), finishing with a stop in the Philippines for a brief appearance at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting.
Asia’s expectations of Trump are best described as somewhere between confusion and alarm. Confused because he has articulated no comprehensive strategy for Asia, and alarmed because he has pulled out of agreements they value such as TPP and the Paris climate accord, threatened to jettison the free-trade pact with South Korea, and railed against our trade imbalance with China.
Uniformly, Asian contacts worry that they will be pulled inexorably into China’s economic orbit because of their heavy dependence on trade with Beijing. Close American allies like Australia, Korea and Japan send China 34, 25 and 19 percent of their exports, respectively, to China.
But the trip does give Trump an opportunity to set a direction and strategy — sadly at a time of strikingly low confidence in him, and even distrust. In South Korea, for example, only 17 percent in opinion polls expect Trump to “do the right thing”; in Japan, 24 percent. Trump seems interested in a bilateral trade pact with Japan, but Abe so far is moving ahead to revise the regional TPP pact without the U.S.
Trump claims to have a warm relationship with China’s Xi, but he may not realize the extent to which Xi now presents himself and China as the world’s alternative to a weak and divided United States.
The good news? Defense Secretary Mattis last month spent time in Asia preparing the way for Trump with reassuring messages, and Secretary of State Tillerson will accompany the president at all stops. But as has been the case since the inauguration, reassuring cabinet officers leave counterparts wondering whether they truly speak for the president or whether their messages will be upended by an angry tweet the next morning.
Asia’s leaders now have their first chance, collectively, to decide what they can really expect from America’s new president.