From November 3-14, 2017, Donald J. Trump conducted his first trip to Asia as President of the United States. President Trump has indicated that his administration will abandon Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy, but has not yet articulated an overall Asia strategy. While the aim of the trip was to solidify American presence in East Asia, to achieve specific bilateral trade outcomes, and to strategize with Asian counterparts regarding the North Korean nuclear crisis, it is not clear whether President Trump meaningfully achieved any of these objectives, nor has his administration formulated a long term vision for the region.
On November 3, President Trump visited American naval and air bases in Hawaii, and received a briefing from U.S. Pacific Command. On November 5, President Trump landed in Japan, where he met with Japanese President Abe to discuss several issues, including the abduction of Japanese citizens by the North Korean regime, as well as bilateral trade between America and Japan. On November 7, President Trump traveled to the Republic of Korea, where he delivered a keynote speech to the National Assembly on the North Korean nuclear crisis, and privately spoke with President Moon. President Trump’s speech was met with both anti-America and pro-America protests in South Korea, and it seems that South Korean public opinion is divided regarding Trump’s engagement in the region.
On November 8, President Trump was hosted by President Xi Jinping in Beijing. No expense was spared: President Trump described the events as having “red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever seen”. While the centerpiece of the meeting between the presidents was to achieve a workable solution to the North Korean nuclear issue, President Xi and President Trump were not able to reach a consensus. President Xi proposed a ‘freeze-for-freeze’ or ‘dual suspension’ initiative, in which joint U.S.-South Korean military drills would be suspended to incentivize a suspension of North Korea’s nuclear program. President Trump rejected the proposal but, in a subsequent tweet, commended Beijing’s decision to send an envoy and delegation to North Korea to negotiate further. No substantive agreement was reached between Trump or Xi to address America’s longstanding trade deficit with China—another primary objective of Trump’s Asia trip.
On November 10, President Trump flew to Vietnam to participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leader’s meeting. He concluded his trip in the Philippines, where he held bi-lateral meetings with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, to discuss American plans for a new economic focus on the Indo-Pacific region; however Trump’s vision for this region has not yet been publically articulated. President Trump also attended the U.S.-ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit before returning to America on November 14.
President Trump’s trip to Asia was the longest trip made by any President to the region in over 25 years. However, it is not clear that Trump’s trip made a significant impact on any Asian leaders: despite President Trump’s withdrawal from TPP negotiations, he indicated during his trip that he hoped to engage in exploratory talks with Asian political leaders regarding bilateral trade agreements, but he has so far been unable to persuade any countries to do so. TPP negotiations have continued without the United States, which puts Trump in a relatively weaker bargaining position to negotiate future bilateral trade deals. Protests in the Philippines and South Korea suggest that President Trump was unable to rally support for American presence in the region. Likewise, President Trump and President Xi appear to be at an impasse regarding the North Korean nuclear issue. While much media fanfare was payed to his trip, Trump may have just stayed home.