NEW YORK – U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan, South Korea and China this month showcased his foreign policy driven primarily by the pursuit of America’s interest first, unlike those of his predecessors who used similar occasions to reaffirm America’s commitment to upholding fundamental values, such as democracy, freedom of speech and human rights in the Asia-Pacific region.
Throughout his 12-day, five-nation trip that also took him to Vietnam and the Philippines, where he attended regional summits, Trump repeated his pleas for his hosts to work toward rectifying their countries’ chronic trade imbalances with the United States and build instead what he called a “fair, free and reciprocal trade relationship.” He managed to extract commitments from two of America’s most important allies in Northeast Asia — Japan and South Korea — to purchase military equipment worth billions of dollars to counter the increasing threat from North Korea, another major theme of discussion throughout his trip.
“It’s a lot of jobs for us and a lot of safety for Japan,” Trump told a joint news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo. He repeated the same phrase with South Korean President Moon Jae-in that Seoul’s decision to buy billions of dollars of U.S. military equipment would mean “jobs, it means reducing our trade deficit with South Korea.”
In Beijing, Trump sat with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to witness a signing ceremony of the pre-arranged mega business deal worth some $250 billion. In a notable shift in tone from his campaign rhetoric, Trump praised Xi and said that “by looking at the tremendous, incredible, job-producing agreements just signed … we’re off to a very, very good start.” The trade deficits that the U.S. sustained in 2016 amounted to some $347 billion with China, followed by $68.8 billion with Japan and $27.5 billion with South Korea, according to the U.S. census bureau.
Trump defended his “America first” policy at the outset of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam. “I am always going to put America first, the same way I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first,” he told an APEC business conference.
While his visit yielded some positive signs for rectifying the U.S. trade imbalances with Japan, China and South Korea, Trump appeared less successful on the security front in terms of aligning the three countries on the same page in dealing with the increasing threat from North Korea, which has test-fired some 20 ballistic missiles and conducted its sixth nuclear test this year, all in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
While he and Abe shared their positions that only a maximum pressure approach would work to force the Pyongyang regime to abandon its nuclear weapons development program, Moon, a liberal-oriented president who took office in May by promising detente with North Korea, did not fail to emphasize the importance of solving the issue through dialogue.
During his meeting with Xi, who was elected to his second term as the nation’s top leader in the Communist Party congress last month, Trump repeated his standing request that China, North Korea’s traditional ally and largest trade partner, do more to rein in Pyongyang. Both leaders agreed on the need to keep the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free, but remained different as to how to achieve it. While Trump stressed the need to apply more pressure to force North Korea to change its course, Xi maintained his usual line that China would faithfully implement Security Council resolutions and seek to solve the issue through negotiation.
Trump’s Asia trip was carefully choreographed to take place in a setting that maximizes U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region with the deployment of three nuclear-powered aircraft carrier strike groups for a drill near the waters off the Korean Peninsula. The deployment was primarily directed at sending a stern warning to North Korea that Trump was determined to defend the U.S. and its allies using what he called “full range of its unmatched military capabilities if need be.” The show of force, however, was also meant to remind Washington’s allies, as well as rivals, that the U.S. still possesses the most powerful military capabilities that none of them can afford to ignore.
Indeed Trump received red-carpet treatment with lavish hospitalities, almost unseen for his predecessors, from his hosts in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, who wanted to take the most out of his visit to advance their own political agenda. Abe, whose Liberal Democratic Party won a commanding victory in the general election last month, spent long hours with Trump playing golf and sharing lunches and dinners together, in addition to the formal summit meeting. He needed to show to the public the strong Japan-U.S. alliance based on his personal ties with Trump to ensure that he will be re-elected for a third term as LDP president next year, so he can stay as prime minister through 2021.
South Korea extended Trump the honor of addressing its parliament in the first state visit in 25 years by a U.S. president. Moon needed to reaffirm that his country’s firm alliance with the U.S. remained unchanged, on the heels of the recent agreement with China to normalize their bilateral relations that had been strained since deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea.
China had complained that the deployment posed a direct threat to its security and called on its people to not to visit South Korea and boycott South Korean products. China dropping its complaint shortly after Xi’s re-election indicated that the Chinese president now wants to bring South Korea closer to China’s fold, driving a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. Moon said after the agreement that South Korea would not consider additional deployments of the THAAD system and would not join a tripartite military alliance with the U.S. and Japan.
Xi extended a “state visit plus” treatment to Trump, as he needed to manage a stable Sino-U.S. relationship now. Xi vowed at the party congress to make China a great superpower politically, economically and militarily by 2050. He fully realizes that it would not be in China’s interest to antagonize the U.S., at least for now. As he said at his news conference with Trump, “The Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both China and the U.S.”
The impact of Trump’s Asia visit for solution of the North Korean issue was not immediately known. Trump’s discussions with the leaders of North Korea’s immediate neighbors confirmed that the practical approach to dealing with North Korea should be a combination of “pressure” and “dialogue,” and not a choice between “pressure” and “dialogue.” Having demonstrated his resolve to use “unmatched” military capabilities if necessary, what remains to be seen is whether Trump can provide a realistic point of entry for North Korean leader Kim Jung Un to commence the process of dialogue through his America first diplomacy.
A former United Nations official, Hitoki Den is a commentator based in New York. He is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) and many articles on U.N. and Asian issues.