Rising tension in Asia is the reason Trump will travel
to five Asian countries — Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam,
and the Philippines — in early November.
Trump’s visits to Japan, South Korea, and the
Philippines are to demonstrate that the US is still committed
to Asia, and not only because of North Korea. But photo
ops won’t be enough to prove this commitment.
Japan and South Korea will want to know what the US
plans to do about Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, the Philippines wants to know whether it can
still depend on the US to protect its interests — or whether it
should cut a deal with China now while it has all the
China’s 19th National Congress of the Communist Party is getting
a lot of attention right now. In the opening
ceremony, President Xi Jinping heralded the
beginning of a new era in
China. Surprisingly, he was also very
honest about the inadequacy of his first term.
Although the congress will continue into this week, most of the
major events have already taken place.
Much of Asia had been in a holding pattern in the lead-up to the
congress. But now that holding pattern is over, we can look ahead
to some key events in the region that will have a global impact.
Japan in a Tough Spot
In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s coalition decisively won
another term in elections over the weekend. It is a remarkable
political comeback for Abe.
He has overcome some of the scandals dogging his regime and won
another mandate, allowing him to continue his economic reforms
and take a controversial step in revisiting its pacifist
constitution. (I wrote about Japan’s geopolitical realities and
its strategy in my exclusive ebook, The
World Explained in Maps, which you
Abe can thank North Korea in part for his political resurgence.
North Korea’s missiles over Japan and the inability to halt
Pyongyang’s nuclear program have given Abe new life. But the
important issue here is not so much Abe as it is a potential
shift in Japan’s overall posture.
China admitted some of its weaknesses during the National
Congress. In spite of that, Japan cannot bet that China will
remain weak, no matter how difficult China’s problems are.
Further, the inability of the US to control the situation in
North Korea raises hard questions for Japan. A country shielded
by a US security guarantee can afford to be a pacifist nation.
But a country highly dependent on raw material imports and
threatened by an adversary that may soon become a nuclear power
Add to this the fact that Japan conquered much of the Asian coast
in the early 20th century and treated its
colonial subjects as inferiors. This leaves Japan in a tough
Japan has no shortage of enemies, and it can’t count on the US to
prevent North Korea from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Japan will
have to fend for itself. Meanwhile, North Korea remains as
recalcitrant as ever.
In the past week, Pyongyang has threatened imminent nuclear war
against the United States and vowed to “mercilessly smash the war
frenzy of the US and South Korean puppet warmongers” in response
to US-South Korean naval drills.
This rhetoric is typical for the North Koreans. But there are
some statements related to the North Korean crisis that shouldn’t
The CIA director recently said that North Korea was on the verge
of possessing nuclear weapons capable of striking the US—and that
President Donald Trump would not allow that to happen.
US Commitment to Asia
Rising tension in Asia is the reason Trump will travel to five
Asian countries—Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the
Philippines—in early November. It’s a fitting trip for the
one-year anniversary of Trump’s election.
Trump’s visits to Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines are to
demonstrate that the US is still committed to Asia, and not only
because of North Korea. But photo ops won’t be enough to prove
Japan and South Korea will want to know what the US plans to do
about Pyongyang. Meanwhile, the Philippines wants to know whether
it can still depend on the US to protect its interests—or whether
it should cut a deal with China now while it has all the
Trump’s trip to Vietnam is proof of a fundamental premise in
geopolitics: Individual leaders don’t matter nearly as much as
most people think they do. A country’s foreign policy will change
very little when a new president takes office.
President Barack Obama lifted an arms embargo against Vietnam
during a visit to Hanoi. Now, President Trump is set to take his
own trip to the communist country. The two nations may have an
uneasiness toward each other because of the Vietnam War, but they
share an interest in containing China. And this is more important
than ideology and their historical animosity.
Trump won’t eat noodles with Anthony Bourdain on the streets of
Hanoi, as his predecessor did. But like Obama, he will look to
strengthen the bilateral relationship to isolate China in the
region as much as possible.
This leads us, of course, to China.
It remains unclear what Trump plans to do when he meets the
Chinese president on his home turf. When they last met in April,
Xi agreed to help the US contain North Korea in return for the
Trump administration’s backing off on its China trade policies.
Six months later, there has been no tangible progress on North
Korea. More hawkish, anti-China voices in Trump’s ear have been
sidelined. And now, according to Politico, the
White House is reportedly conducting a comprehensive, bottom-up
review of its China policy.
Rumors are swirling over what could result from Trump’s trip to
China. But the only things that are certain are that the US is
not getting what it wants out of China, and China cannot give the
US what it wants.
Trump’s meeting with Xi won’t solve these issues. Until the US
decides what it will do about North Korea, its policy in Asia
will remain hostage to the regime in Pyongyang.
This plays into China’s hands and leaves other US partners
looking for alternatives.
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