It is being seen as one of the trickiest diplomatic tours in decades in which Donald Trump will must grapple with the thorny issues of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions as well as trade wars in Asia. Here is what lies ahead for him.
Golf and Youtube hits (November 5-7)
Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will attempt to build on the rapport he established with Trump during visits to New York and Florida, first on the golf course and then over an official dinner in Tokyo that will feature an intriguing musical interlude.
Trump’s two days in Japan will be dominated by North Korea. There was alarm during the US presidential campaign that the US president would weaken Washington’s security commitment to its east Asian allies. Although this has abated, Abe is expected to seek further private and public reassurances that the US stands with Japan as it confronts North Korean missile launches over its territory.
In policy terms that will mean more cooperation on missile defence and joint efforts to ensure other countries, namely China and Russia, fully implement recent UN security council sanctions against Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, Trump will offer his support for Japan over China’s territorial ambitions in the East China Sea, where Tokyo and Beijing are embroiled in a long-running dispute over sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Trump stunned Japan a year ago when he announced America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a free trade agreement in which Abe had invested considerable political capital. Analysts believe the two leaders will put their differences on trade to one side, fearing it could dent their united front on the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Moon will cast a shadow (November 7-8)
It is possible that the mood on Air Force One could darken slightly during Trump’s short hop from Tokyo to Seoul on Tuesday. While Abe, a hawk, hasn’t budged an inch from Trump’s position on North Korea, the South’s left-leaning president, Moon Jae-in, will offer the president a cordial, but cautious, welcome.
Moon, who agrees with Trump that now is not the time to engage in high-level talks with Pyongyang, has nonetheless signalled his opposition to any unilateral military action by the US, telling the national assembly this week: “There should be no military action on the peninsula without our prior consent.”
That said, Moon angered his liberal base, and China, by approving the deployment of the Thaad missile defence, designed to counter North Korean attacks.
Aware that the 10 million residents of Seoul, just 50km from the demilitarised zone (DMZ), are highest on Pyongyang’s retaliatory list of targets, Moon has attempted to make good on a campaign pledge in May to seize the diplomatic initiative on North Korea from Washington.
It might have been possible to hear a sigh of relief from the presidential Blue House in Seoul when the US decided to scrap plans for Trump to visit the DMZ, a move that resonates with US policymakers and troops, but which some South Koreans regarded as an unnecessary provocation in these particularly tense times.
Instead, all eyes will be on Trump on Wednesday, when he becomes the seventh US president to address South Korea’s national assembly in a speech that will be dominated by the peninsula’s nuclear crisis.
A great wall and greater trade deals (November 8-10)
Xi Jinping is likely to roll out the reddest of red carpets for Donald Trump during his three days in Beijing. Some believe Xi might even offer his border wall-obsessed guest a tour of the greatest wall on earth.
But two thorny topics will top the agenda when America’s self-styled king of deals sits down with an ascendant leader he last week hailed as the “king of China”: trade and North Korea.
The key role Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, has played in preparations for the trip suggests economic issues will take centre stage. Observers believe Trump will want to return home with a series of tweetable short-term victories that will bolster his claims to be confronting Beijing over unfair trade practices and bringing jobs and investment back to the US. China is likely to oblige. One mooted deal will see China’s state-run oil giant Sinopec agree to pump at least $7bn into areas devastated by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Trump and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, meanwhile, will hope to make further progress on thwarting Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions. Even Trump critics believe he is making some headway on this front, with Beijing backing two recent rounds of UN security council resolutions against Pyongyang. “The Chinese have done more under President Trump’s prodding than any other American president,” the former US ambassador to Nato Nicholas Burns told CNBC last month.
Few, however, believe Beijing has much more to offer on North Korea. Earlier in the year some had predicted Trump would arrive in Beijing touting a radical makeover of the US-China relationship that would see dramatic concessions on both sides. Those expectations now appear far-fetched.
Goodbye noodles, hello Putin (November 10-11)
The defining image from Obama’s visit to Vietnam last year was him and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain sitting on plastic stools, shirt sleeves rolled up and eating noodles as part of their $6 dinner.
It was one of Obama’s more obviously staged scenes, but the act charmed many in Vietnam on a visit where he also played up to civil society by condemning human rights abuses.
Trump may very well skip the noodles show and human rights talk altogether when he arrives in Vietnam.
First, he will head to the regional Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference, perhaps the most significant wildcard of the entire Asia trip with so many world leaders, including Vladimir Putin, all crammed into the Intercontinental Hotel at the seaside resort town of Da Nang.
A day later, he’ll fly up to Hanoi to meet Vietnam’s president, Tran Dai Quang, for talks that will be squarely aimed at boosting economic and security cooperation, especially regarding territorial disputes Vietnam has with Beijing in the South China Sea.
Trump also wants to rebalance a major trade deficit and has already hailed deals worth billions of dollars with US companies in Vietnam. But diplomacy could be tough as the communist leadership is wary of the property developer – Vietnam would have been a prime beneficiary of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated under Obama that Trump ditched within days of taking office.
Peas in a pod, or are they? (November 12-13)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Trump, two populist and equally mercurial leaders who have not escaped the inevitable comparisons, will meet on the last leg of the US leader’s trip to Asia when he flies into Manila.
US-Filipino relations have plummeted under Duterte’s leadership, especially after Obama criticised his bloody war on drugs in which police have killed thousands. Duterte responded by calling Obama a “son of whore” and announced a “separation” from the former colonial power. Meanwhile, Manila has been courted by Russia and China.
But Trump appears to have found a like-minded friend and in May he praised Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem”. The pair are likely to discuss the North Korean crisis as well as Marawi, a city in the southern Philippines that was taken over by local militants who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
However, the bilateral may be overshadowed by Trump’s reported unwillingness to attend the East Asia Summit, which would add a day or two to an already lengthy 11-day trip for the notoriously cranky commander-in-chief.
Trump’s absence signals a lack of interest and raises doubts about America’s alleged engagement in a region where China has taken a key interest. The dozen or so Asian countries there may feel abandoned.
Sources: Guardian, Reuters, AFP