WASHINGTON — In the midst of the Russia investigation and a tax cut push on Capitol Hill, President Trump will spend 10 days on an Asia trip devoted to trade and the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons.
In visits to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines, Trump plans to advocate changes to trade deals and to pressure allies into confronting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“In the big picture, there’s trade, there’s North Korea, and there’s the re-assessment of the U.S. commitment to the region,” said Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies with the Council on Foreign Relations. “Those are three big issues across the board.”
And Asia’s anxious about Trump. Fear that his aggressive rhetoric on “Rocket Man” Kim could lead to a military confrontation with North Korea, possibly involving nuclear weapons, and concern about what his “America First” rhetoric will mean for trade relations with the United States.
“I will be traveling to Asia to advance America’s economic and national security priorities,” Trump said, touting his trip during a tax reform meeting this week at the White House.
In a high-profile speech to the South Korea National Assembly in Seoul, Trump plans to stress his ongoing efforts to pressure China and other countries into ending economic assistance to North Korea unless it gives up its nuclear weapons.
Allies, meanwhile, will be looking to see how bellicose Trump is toward toward Kim.
At other events throughout the week, including a speech to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, Trump is expected to demand new trade policies throughout the region.
Domestic politics could well intrude on Trump’s trip. It comes less than a week after a special counsel unveiled charges against three former campaign aides in connection with the investigation into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.
Trump and aides are also pushing Congress to pass a new tax cut plan, something he is likely to talk about during trade talks in Asia.
In short, Trump will be looking for different things from different countries — and vice-versa.
The president, who boards Air Force One on Friday morning, has a crowded schedule:
At a mid-way stop, Trump will be briefed by military leaders at the U.S. Pacific Command and will tour Pearl Harbor to honor service members lost on Dec. 7, 1941.
In addition to meetings and ceremonies with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe designed to showcase the U.S.-Japan alliance, Trump also gets a special treat: A round of golf with Abe and Japanese golfing star Hideki Matsuyama.
Trump and Abe have gotten along well in previous meetings, but analysts say Japan is worried over whether Japan would be caught in the middle of a U.S.-North Korea military confrontation.
“Behind the scenes the Japanese government is asking a lot of questions about the circumstances under which the U.S. might use force,” said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair with the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).
Japanese officials have also questioned Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a gigantic trade deal that included Japan, and worry about the prospects for a bi-lateral trade deal.
Perhaps the key stop on the trip, the capital city of South Korea stands in the cross-hairs of the nuclear standoff between the United States and North Korea.
South Korea officials wouldn’t mind if Trump toned down the rhetoric toward its nuclear-armed northern neighbor. The president has said he would rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if it attacks the United States.
Kori Schake, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a former National Security Council staffer, said Trump and some of his aides “are engaging in reckless, dangerous rhetoric in circumstances that have a very thin margin for error. I put the risk of military conflict at about three in 10.”
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster dismissed concerns about Trump’s rhetoric, saying that “what’s inflammatory is the North Korean regime.” North Korea is not just a threat to the United States and the region, McMaster told reporters Thursday, it is a threat to the entire world, and “all nations must do more to counter this threat.”
Trump, seeking South Korea support for his efforts to confront North Korea, also plans to visit an American-Korean military camp, and to describe it as a model of international cooperation and burden sharing. Nearly 30,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea.
Trade is also likely to surface as an issue in Seoul.
Another important stop, featuring perhaps the two most powerful leaders in the world, Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Xi comes into the Trump visit in a strengthened position, coming off the once-every-five-years congress of the Communist Party, which gave him even more power. Some analysts believe Xi could win up serving another decade, becoming China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong led the successful communist revolution in 1949.
Trump sees China as the key to reining in North Korea; the Chinese basically prop up the North Korean economy, helping it finance its nuclear weapons program.
Xi, however, has said his influence on North Korea is limited, and has pushed the idea of multi-lateral talks to try and resolve the nuclear dispute.
Trade is also at the top of the U.S.-China agenda.
Trump, who has accused China of unfair trade practices, is looking for ways to reduce the trade balance, and is expected to lobby China on deals to buy more American goods. Don’t be surprised if China makes such an announcement.
David Dollar, a senior fellow and China expert with the Brookings Institution, said “there are a lot of the deals in the works” involving products ranging from soybeans to aircraft – but whether they mean in the long-term is an open question.
The Chinese strategy, Dollar predicted, ”will be to treat Trump with enormous respect and give him nothing.”
During his presidential campaign, Trump threatened to formally label China a currency manipulator. But Trump has held off since taking office, he said, to help induce China to put economic pressure on North Korea.
China, meanwhile, wants the United States to stay quiet on Chinese military expansion into the South China Sea, a project that involves putting new military bases on man-made islands amid Japanese objections
Like his predecessors, Trump will attend the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, to be held this year in Da Nang.
APEC will be the stage for a second big speech of the trip. Trump is expected to call for a “free and open” Indo-China region, but some delegates will wonder about his America First rhetoric and his attacks on existing trade deals he claims are unfair to the United States.
“We’re going to meet a lot of presidents and leaders of countries that have been friends and have become very good friends of mine,” Trump said at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. “And we have great trade relationships, other than the fact that we are right now being taken advantage of. But I think they’ll start changing them pretty quickly.”
After visiting with APEC members, Trump will head to the capital of Hanoi to meet with Vietnamese leaders. The United States sees Vietnam as a key ally when it comes to push back against Chinese expansion into the South China Sea.
Trump wraps up with a trip to the site of another economic summit, this one hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In addition to ASEAN events, Trump will meet with controversial Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose “war on drugs” includes summary executions.
Trump’s departure plans had drawn some criticism.
The president was scheduled to return to Washington, D.C., before a meeting of another major gathering, the East Asia Summit. But China will there, giving Xi’s government a chance to nurture relationships in the region without Trump. But on Friday, the White House announced Trump would spend an extra day in the Philippines to attend the summit after all.
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