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Can President Trump Reassure Asia?

Late last week, President Trump embarked on 12-day tour of Asia which includes visits to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. It will be the longest visit for a sitting US president in 25 years. His visit comes at a time of heightened tensions caused by an increasingly aggressive North Korea. In addition to this immediate and growing threat, another priority is trade; especially regarding China and Vietnam.

While the North Korea threat has always been on the US radar, the recent escalation and its resulting insecurity among US allies in the region has brought it into the spotlight. The purpose of Trump’s visit is to reassure long-standing allies such as Japan and South Korea of the U.S. commitment and as a show of strength intended for North Korea. We already see signs of this in his first stop in Japan. However, this is more of a reactionary measure to the current context. All the evidence points to the fact that his visit is targeted to the long-term threat of a rising and assertive China.

The timing of his visit in the region is interesting given the recent conclusion of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. At this meeting President Xiping acquired significantly more power as his name and thought are now enshrined in the Party’s constitution (an essential step to quash future dissent) and has called for a “new era” in Chinese politics – one which will consolidate its domestic power and further its international stature.

US policy in Asia over the past decade has been focused on China, despite not specifically mentioning it. The policy has been dubbed the ‘pivot towards Asia’ or ‘Re-balancing towards Asia under the Obama administration. Through this policy, more military, economic and diplomatic resources and attention would be dedicated to the region to balance China’s rise. One of the key components of this was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would have been the largest Free Trade Agreement (FTA) ever. It would link several Asia – Pacific countries including Japan, Chile, and the US.

On assuming office, President Trump withdrew from the TPP and its fate was sealed. In addition, notable US withdrawals from major international treaties and organizations such as the Paris Climate Accords and UNESCO signal that “America first” will be a guiding principle of American foreign policy. We are yet to hear an articulate elaboration of US policy towards the Asia- Pacific region and in this context, this visit is vital to reaffirm alliances and reassure allies.

President Trump has not always been the most consistent in his policy declarations and with the probes on the 2016 election lurking over his presidency, any relationship with the US now comes with an air of unpredictability. This has resulted in allies seeking greater relations and alliances with other powers in the region. For example, Indo- Japanese relations have greatly increased over the past two years under Prime Ministers Modi and Abe because of a sense of insecurity from their proximity to China.

It cannot be overstated how important Trump’s visit to Asia is. As in most parts of the world the region faces grave short and long-term strategic challenges. Unfortunately, Trump’s “America First” philosophy does not gel with US interests in the region. Asian allies have, for too long, overtly depended on the US as a means of balancing power in the region and are slowly realizing a course-correction is needed. However, until then this visit is intended to send a strong message to China and North Korea – that the US will back its allies, if and when the situation demands it.

Image Credit: CC by Donald Trump in Asia/ Flickr