Government and governance, International relations | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

13 November 2017

In this special Policy Forum Rapid Round-up, experts help sort the substance from the sound bites as Trump visits Asia. This page is being updated as new analysis comes in.

President Donald Trump’s 11-day visit to Asia could potentially provide clarification about where US foreign policy is headed. But it comes at a time of increasing tensions and uncertainty in the region, with ramped-up rhetoric from and towards North Korea, question marks over the future of trade with the US, and a rising power in China. We asked experts to give us their take as Trump tours Asia.

“US-Philippines relations nosedived during the final years of the Obama administration. For the most part, this was due to President Obama’s criticisms of human right abuses in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial ‘war on drugs’.

“Unlike his predecessor, however, President Trump made human rights a low priority during his recently concluded meeting with Duterte. More important for Trump was winning Manila’s support on other hot-button issues, including tensions with North Korea and the emerging balance of power game between the US and China.

“Compared to the frostiness between Obama and Duterte, many have seen a natural rapport between the flamboyant and unpredictable personalities of Trump and Duterte. However, personal chemistry notwithstanding, strategy will eventually drive the course of the US-Philippines relationship.

“While Washington needs to nurture its alliances and partnerships in the face of China’s increasing diplomatic heft, weaker powers like the Philippines will have to manoeuvre their foreign policy preferences amidst the US-China great power relationship. Manila has shown its intentions to play a delicate balancing game between its traditional ally, the US, and the rising power of China. As Beijing tries to win over the Philippines through major investments, it is crucial for Washington not to lose its strategic ally in the Philippines, which serves America’s military interests in China’s near seas.”

“For China, Trump’s recent state visit marks one of, if not the, most important US presidential visits in the past few decades. During Trump’s time in Beijing, there was neither open discussion nor any mention of human rights at all. Chinese media reacted very positively to Trump’s pragmatic approach on those issues, which the Chinese government did not want to bring to the table during this kind of diplomatic occasion.

“Trump’s high praise of China and Xi Jinping also helped both country and president to gain face, something which is considered crucial in Chinese culture. The recognition from the leader of the US superpower strengthens the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative of China’s revival under its leadership.

“In the wider context, Trump’s visit is also remarkable due to the shifting international landscapes. While Trump is leading the US retreat from global governance in many areas, China is stepping in. To many Chinese analysts, America’s global retreat under Trump is a fantastic opportunity for China to elevate its global status.

“Nonetheless, China still is far from capable and willing to replace America’s global role, and still needs to heavily rely on the US to maintain the existing global order. It will be interesting to observe whether Trump’s state visit to China might lead to a “G2” model in the near future. “

“Abe is committed to a strong US-Japan alliance under Trump. Abe’s statement of ‘Donald and Shinzo: Make Alliance Even Greater’ should be seen as more than just a rhetorical play on words. Abe’s foreign policy and security reform agenda is deeply entangled in the US regional strategy.

More on this: Abe's skilful diplomacy

Yet, while Abe has willingly followed Trump’s North Korea course, the risk of military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula also entails the risk of a backlash to Abe’s security agenda, as public concerns over Japanese entrapment in US military action remain.

“Either way, securing a strong US commitment to an enduring Asia-Pacific presence based on the US-Japan security alliance lies at the very core of Abe’s agenda. In this regard, the Abe-Trump meeting should be considered a success for Japan’s diplomacy.”

Read the full piece here:


“…For the Japanese government, the visit was no success. Trump failed to endorse Abe’s renewed proposal for a de facto anti-Chinese ‘Indo-Pacific’ coalition, actually calling President Xi Jinping his friend, while even showing some signs of pragmatism on North Korea.

More on this: Stopping short of success

“More worrisome was when Trump, who had abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, one of Abe’s earlier signature policies, kept on harping on about allegedly unfair trade practices and, uncomfortably reminiscent of the 1980s, pressured Japan to import more US cars while buying ‘massive amounts’ of US weapons.

“If this was not enough, the next day, South Korean President Moon Jae-in contradicted Abe when he called for a peaceful solution to the North Korea problem. Moon also infuriated Tokyo with the invitation of one of the last surviving so-called comfort women, a victim of systematic sexual abuse committed by Imperial Japanese forces during World War II, to the state banquet – a dinner where guests were served shrimps caught near islets claimed by Japan.”

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“In policy, Trump appears to play checkers – a simple, forceful, short, tactical game in which players react quid-pro-quo with uniform moves and limited variation. Policy planning appears centred on short-term benefit, rhetoric involves bluster and threats, and actions involve replaying the same moves – but with more force. The Trump administration is currently pushing primary and secondary economic sanctions, pressuring China to do more, pursuing, ‘back channel’ talks, signalling combat readiness, and cultivating “madman” unpredictability.

More on this: Trump in Korea: where's the policy?

“On the other hand, Moon appears to play baduk – a complex, subtle, long, strategic game in which players balance multiple tactical objectives while keeping track of strategic aims. Policy planning appears focused on the long-term, rhetoric accepts and balances differing positions, and actions involve creating, strengthening, and renewing moves. The Moon administration is currently maintaining firm resolve against conflict and escalation, signalling a willingness to play a role in reducing tension, and demonstrating long-term objectives for engagement.

“That Trump’s visit was a non-event may be viewed as positive, given what could have occurred. But once the sound bites and colourful images recede, Korean peninsula analysts will again wake up and look at their Twitter feeds to realise that US Korean peninsula policy remains sudden, unscheduled, on-again, off-again, privy only to insiders, and seemingly determined by which way the wind blows.”

Read the full piece here:

“Nearly a year has passed since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. At home, his presidency is being severely challenged by deep political divisions between parties and voters, Special Prosecutor Mueller’s investigation into potential Russian collusion in his campaign, and a noteworthy failure to accomplish any major legislative achievements.

More on this: Trump's East Asia tour de force?

“The domestic political civil war has dramatically weakened the Trump administration’s ability to project a presidency that is strong, strategic and supported by its citizens abroad. This has been magnified by Twitter diplomacy and insensitive remarks about foreign policy that contradict and at times undermine the ability of his top officials to execute sound policy.

“Trump’s visit to East Asia comes at a time when the region’s security is being undermined by North Korea’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and nuclear development. A nuclear North challenges the existing security framework, tests the limits of US commitment to its treaty allies of South Korea and Japan, and is compelling policymakers in Seoul and Tokyo to consider the extent they are willing to push back against Pyongyang’s nuclear brinksmanship.”

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