The Trump test
There is a strong likelihood that Donald Trump’s next visit to Asia will be a return trip to Vietnam.
The country last welcomed him in 2017, and says it is now ready to host him again, this time for a second summit with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. Their previous meeting, in Singapore, was in many ways, the most significant moment in Asia last year.
Both leaders regard that meeting as a success because it burnished their international reputations. But since then, a sceptical media has concluded it achieved nothing in terms of persuading North Korea to denuclearise, or to release its totalitarian grip on its beleaguered citizens.
Such scepticism provoked an angry response from the White House. In a tweet last month, Mr Trump wrote: ‘The Fake News Media loves saying so little happened at my first summit with Kim Jong-un. Wrong!’He went on to point out that since the Singapore summit, North Korea has not fired any missiles over Japan, nor conducted any nuclear tests.
In the United States, the debate about Mr Trump’s foreign policy has recently been overshadowed by the bitter divisions over whether to fund the wall with Mexico. That provoked the longest government shutdown in US history.
Mr Trump even had to delay his State of the Union address, denying him an opportunity to boast of his administration’s accomplishments and to offer an upbeat agenda for 2019. Last year, he used the televised speech to make fierce criticisms of China.
People in Asia are keen to hear what the US President has to say about his vision for America’s global role. Does ‘America First’ mean a break in old alliances and a step back from leadership?
Mr Trump’s envoys, most notably the Vice President Mike Pence, have not neglected Asia. Over the past year, they have prioritised the region for official visits and the United States has announced significant funding and military support for Asian governments under its Indo-Pacific blueprint.
The principles behind that strategy were ratified into law on the last day of 2018, when Mr Trump signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, also known as ARIA.
It is designed to reassure Japan and South Korea that America is their steadfast ally. It also sends friendly signals to India and countries in the ASEAN region. Taiwan’s President Tsai welcomed its publication, while the People’s Republic of China expressed its disapproval.
One significant section of the document establishes what the White House calls ‘a multifaceted strategy to increase US security, economic interests, and values in the Indo-Pacific region’.
That could signal a willingness by the United States to return to multilateral trade deals and to re-engage in conversations about becoming a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Mr Trump scrapped plans to join that trading bloc soon after he took office two years ago.
He then began the process which led to the trade war with China and imposed tariffs on imports from long-standing allies such as South Korea and Japan, causing much resentment in the process.
To persuade Mr Trump to do a volte face and agree to engage with the TPP would be a huge triumph for the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. He has long urged the world’s biggest economy to enter the TPP trade agreement and counter the growing influence of China.
But Mr Abe will not be pleased at the prospect of another meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Kim. Before the Singapore summit, he implored the US President to offer no concessions to the North Koreans, unless there was solid proof of denuclearisation.
This time the Japanese prime minister wants action, not words.