By Clay Chandler
November 4, 2017

President Trump arrives tomorrow in Tokyo, the first stop in a marathon two-summit, five nation, 12-day tour of Asia. It will be the US leader’s first official tour of Asia, and the longest visit of any American president to the region since the Asia sojourn of George H.W. Bush in 1991.

Trump’s decision to spend so much time in Asia is a welcome surprise. Numerous reports had quoted anonymous White House staffers expressing a desire to minimize Trump’s time in Asia lest their 71 year-old boss get “cranky.” Trump’s dislike of global travel is well-known, as is his distain for multilateral summit meetings.

In the end, apparently, those considerations were overridden by concerns that Asia-Pacific leaders are losing faith in America’s commitment to preserve stability in the region and that, increasingly, many are hedging their bets by cozying up to China. At the last minute, Trump even added a visit to the Philippines to attend a Pacific Rim security meeting the administration had earlier insisted he’d skip.

The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial, proclaimed Trump’s visit to East Asia as “the most important trip of his Presidency so far, and the most important Asian trip by a U.S. President in more than a decade,” adding that Trump’s meetings and speeches “will send a message, for good or ill, about the U.S. commitment to meet the challenges of North Korea’s nuclear breakout and China’s bid for regional hegemony.”

The White House used Trump’s visit to try out a new diplomatic formulation, reframing a region the US has traditionally referred to as the Asia-Pacific as the “Indo-Pacific.” The new phrase, reportedly urged by Japan, is meant to highlight US relations not just with China and East Asia but a broader collection of nations including India and Australia. But the term seems more of a rebranding effort than a major policy shift. Few analysts expected substantive breakthroughs from Trump’s Asia tour.

Washington Post Beijing correspondent John Pomfret, in this essay, argues Trump’s mixed signals on Asia Pacific affairs have created a crisis of confidence in American leadership and destabilized the region. Since Trump took office, says Pomfret, he has “launched the most significant U.S. retreat from Asia since the Vietnam War.”

Pomfret faults Trump for withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and undercutting his own strategy for dealing with North Korea by threating to rewrite US trade agreements with South Korea and vowing to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea even as his own State Department was conducting talks with North Korean officials at the United Nations. Pomfret also blames the US leader for playing “fast and loose” with Japan, America’s most important Asian ally. Trump’w fundamental problem, according to Pomfret, is that he “does not seem to understand the benefits of alliances. In his world, all foreigners are out to get the United States. He can’t fathom that America First is not sufficient to deal with the multifaceted challenge of China, when, in reality, the United States needs all the friends it can get.”

Trump’s visit to China will be particularly worth watching. Beijing plans to welcome the US leader with what China’s US ambassador Cui Tiankai has called a “state visit-plus,” with lots of pageantry, extra-luxurious sleeping quarters and special culinary arrangements (no spicy foods), to keep Trump in good spirits. Whether flattery and grand gestures will be enough to head off tension between the Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping remains to be seen. Many China analysts predict Xi’s strategy will be to show goodwill and make a flurry of small-bore trade concessions while shrugging off US demands that Beijing move more aggressively to sanction North Korea.

Meanwhile, like many frequent China visitors, I’ll be watching one very specific measure of trust between the two world leaders: whether during Trump’s China visit Xi will allow the US commander in chief unrestricted access to his Twitter account.

Enjoy your weekend.

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

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