As President Trump undertakes his first official trip to Asia, American leadership and credibility are in doubt. Leaders in the region worry that his inflammatory statements and impulsiveness could lead to war with North Korea.
And there is a serious debate in many Asian countries about whether the future lies in closer partnerships with China, the ascendant power, or with the United States.
With so much on the line, one would hope that Mr. Trump has prepared carefully for the challenge. Given what we’ve seen from him, there is good reason to question whether he has.
The president can ill afford to cede more ground to China. He has backed out of an American-led 12-nation trade deal that was supposed to counter China by setting higher caliber trade rules in Asia
and has jettisoned the Paris agreement on climate change, creating space for Beijing to assert influence in both spheres.
Mr. Trump arrives in Asia
as a wounded leader, with low ratings at home and a stalled legislative agenda, and dogged by revelations of Russian interference in the 2016 election on his behalf that have led to indictments against former advisers. His furious denunciations of the constitutional constraints he faces in trying to scuttle the investigation bring to mind the authoritarian leaders of whom he is so fond. This, along with his disregard for human rights, further diminishes the democracy that is America’s greatest source of strength and influence in the region.
A course correction the president made on Friday suggests some awareness about what’s at stake on this trip. Departing Washington, he announced he would reverse his earlier decision and attend the East Asian summit in the Philippines, the main forum where leaders of the United States, China, Russia and other Asian nations discuss tensions like those over the South China Sea and transnational threats like terrorism. If Mr. Trump were a no-show, it would intensify doubts about America’s regional commitment.
To address these doubts, Mr. Trump is expected to use a speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vietnam to call for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region, with the goal of containing China, where Mr. Trump will have a state visit with President Xi Jinping. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has raised the possibility of countering Mr. Xi’s $1 trillion “one belt, one road” initiative of roads, pipelines and other projects linking China to Europe and Asia
with “alternative financing measures, financing structures.” But where the money might come from is a major question.
In contrast to Mr. Trump’s weakness, Mr. Xi just closed a Chinese Communist Party congress at which he was elevated to the same exalted status as the nation’s founding father, Mao Zedong, by writing his name and ideas into the party Constitution. Mr. Xi was already a powerful, authoritarian leader expanding China’s reach militarily and politically, as well as economically, and he seems to have a clearer vision of where he is taking his country and how to get there, even if some of the means may be appalling.
Mr. Trump has already undercut his two main priorities for the trip. He wants China to exert more pressure on North Korea
to end the North’s nuclear weapons program by completely cutting off purchases of North Korean coal, closing North Korean bank accounts and sending North Korean workers home. Mr. Xi has repeatedly rejected going as far as Mr. Trump demands, because doing so could destabilize North Korea, and he has pushed for a negotiated solution to the crisis. But Mr. Trump, reversing his own secretary of state, has refused talks, preferring bombastic threats to “destroy” North Korea
that will be magnified if he repeats them in Asia.
Mr. Trump, pressing a campaign theme, is also pushing hard for China to open up markets and end state subsidies so there is “fair and reciprocal” treatment of the United States. Instead of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership that he rejected, he favors bilateral deals. But his administration is divided over trade policy, and the most he may get out of the Beijing visit is some commercial agreements between Chinese and American companies.
Asian nations want and need America to serve as a democratic counterweight to China. Mr. Trump’s five-nation, 12-day trip will reveal whether he can rise to this challenge.
©2017 The New York Times News Service