TEN months into his presidency, any picture of US President Donald Trump’s definitive policy on the Asia Pacific region remains unclear. As he sets off for his maiden visit to five countries in the region on Friday, Asia waits in trepidation to see what this unpredictable president will bring.
Trump has so far proven to be somewhat of a curve-ball president when it comes to foreign policy. While some of his fiery campaign trail rhetoric has come to fruition – such as withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – regional leaders have been relieved to see that there are others he has stepped back from, such as his threats to abandon allies who didn’t pay their fair share for defence.
But whether he will push his isolationist agenda in keeping with his message of “America First,” essentially abandoning the Obama-era pivot, or extend the arm of diplomacy and collaboration, at this point, is guesswork says Ian Chong, Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.
While his foreign policy advisers are trying to encourage Trump to reach out more, the man himself has not shown any indication of how he intends to play the visit, Chong told Asian Correspondent.
However, the fact that he’s taking the trip at all is an encouraging sign.
Trump will spend 12 days travelling from Japan to South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. During his visit, he will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit but is choosing to skip the East Asia Summit (EAS) in the Philippines and return to Washington a day early.
This unexpected move to pull out of the EAS already has some speculating that Trump’s commitment to the region is far from guaranteed.
“It is a big deal. The Obama administration made a point of investing in these regional institutions in order to demonstrate we are an Asia Pacific power, a resident power in the region. This will only raise more questions about American credibility,” former US ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell told The Washington Post.
“Multilateralism in Asia is often just about showing up, but even that appears to be hard for him.”
The summit is organised by Asean and is also attended by Russia, China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India and South Korea. It is commonly scheduled to accommodate the attendance of the president. But while it may be frustrating for attendees, Chong does not believe Trump’s absence is such a disaster.
In practical terms it is not significant at all, and, whilst his absence may “underline his relative disinterest in the region” symbolically, there are other indicators that more accurately depict the role the US presidency will play going forward, Chong said.
It is the agreements that Trump tears up or the deals that he reneges on that could risk America paling into irrelevance. As allies and adversaries address problems without American involvement, the president’s leverage and the US bargaining position will be weakened on regional priorities – such as trade and North Korea – and will likely see China stepping into the role.
Both trade and North Korea are the only topics the region expects Trump to address during this visit, with little to no focus paid to regional issues, such as the Rohingya crisis in Burma or the South China Sea that has dominated previous conferences.
Trump’s bombastic rhetoric threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea if necessary has not been met with great enthusiasm by most leaders in Asia Pacific.
While no one wants a belligerent North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, there is a feeling in the region that if you push them too hard they might crack, eliciting a whole raft of other problems to deal with, said Chong.
“There’s wariness about US being too provocative and pushing North Korea into corner…It’s a difficult balancing act for all the actors in the region,” he said.
Even in the case of China, who Trump has repeatedly called on to rein in the nuclear ambitions of Pyongyang, they cannot be certain how far they can push North Korea before they lash out. With this in mind, diplomacy over rhetoric will be central to the leaders’ message to Trump.
As for regional leaders’ approach to Trump on other matters, expect them to “make nice,” says Chong, who believes that expectations of the Trump administration are so low that as long as the visit goes off without any major hitches or disruptive outbursts, it will be considered a success and the region will return to business as usual.
“Let Trump have a victory,” said Chong. “Mollify him, give him something he can claim as a win, and the visit will be considered a success.”