President Trump is endeavoring through East Asia on a 13-day, five-country tour of Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. On his first stop, he reassured the Japanese people that the U.S. is a committed ally, both politically and militarily. After landing on Nov. 5 at Yokota Air Base, near Tokyo, the president addressed U.S. and Japanese troops on the immediate threat that North Korea poses to both Japan and the United States, without naming the country directly. The president said, “our brave warriors are the last bulwark against threats to the dreams of people in America and Japan and all across the world,” as well as “you are the greatest hope for people who desire to live in freedom and harmony, and you are the greatest threat to tyrants and dictators who seek to prey on the innocent.” Without question, the “tyrants and dictators” statement was in reference to Kim Jong-un, the leader of the regime of North Korea, a hot topic throughout the tour.
The president also met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whom he called a “very tough negotiator.” Abe was recently re-elected with a strong mandate. During one of their dinner meetings, the two signed a pair of Trumpian hats displaying a unique message of unity: “Donald & Shinzo: Make Alliance Great Again.”
The two topics that dominated the trip were trade and defense. President Trump said on Nov. 6 that “right now our trade with Japan is not fair and it isn’t open,” decrying the U.S.’ trade deficit with Japan, which has been recently measured at $69 billion. This the second largest trade deficit, behind China, that the U.S. has with a particular country; it is primarily driven by the U.S.’ import of cars and electronics. It’s not clear at the moment what changes are to come in trade, if any. Defense and the danger of North Korea also dominated the conversation in Japan. The president praised the defense upgrades the Japanese military are investing in, such as F-35A fighter jets and missile defense batteries. He also reinforced the commitment the U.S. has to Japan against North Korean aggression.
The second stop on the trip was South Korea; President Trump arrived on Nov. 7. His visit once again highlighted the threat of North Korea. In his speech to the South Korean parliament, President Trump said, “the very existence of a thriving South Korean republic threatens the very survival of the North Korean dictatorship.” He also reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the young but prosperous 67-year-old country.
“In this republic, the [South Korean] people have done what no dictator ever could. You took, with the help of the United States, responsibility for yourselves and ownership of your future. You had a dream – a Korean dream – and you built that dream into a great reality,” said Trump.
President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, held a press conference with President Trump to discuss the joint-military cooperation against the threat of the rogue northern neighbor. President Trump again praised the South Koreans, like the Japanese, for investing in THAAD missile defense shields. It fits into his America First promise, as it reduces the U.S.’ military spending in the country, and the proceeds go to American defense firms. In response to the South Korean military build-up, China has pushed through several retaliatory sanctions which should come up in President Trump’s visit. The South Korean visit also included a ceremonial tour of the Blue House (the Korean equivalent of the White House), where the presidents and their wives met privately.
At the time of writing, President Trump is in China, halfway through his Asian tour. The biggest news to come out of this trip is the possible $250 billion of Chinese investment across several sectors in the American economy. The biggest recipient of this investment is in the energy sector, primarily the extraction, refinement and transportation of fossil fuels. About $43 billion is planned for a natural gas project involving the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. and the Chinese oil and gas firm, Sinopec. It should be noted that these investments, though enormous, are still being negotiated and may take several years or may never even come to fruition.
Trade deficits, a sticking point in Japan, have also arisen in U.S.-China trade talks. It seems that the talk of great investment has not assuaged the Trump administration’s priority of trade parity. On the matter, President Trump said, “we want a vibrant trade relationship with China. We also want a reciprocal one.” Despite criticizing the trade deficits, the president has said, “I don’t blame China. After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit.” However, he has also admonished China for unfair trade practices, saying that the U.S. “will no longer turn a blind eye to violations, cheating, or economic aggression. Those days are over.” President Trump sees the Chinese as doing business with the U.S. on unequal footing and wants that to change.
China’s support of North Korea and retaliatory sanctions seem to have taken a backseat. The focus is primarily on China’s promotion of economic welfare, rather than questioning its acts of economic retaliation. It is not immediately clear at the time of publication what will precipitate from the Chinese visit, but economic integration and trade parity seem to be the focal points.
Over the next week, President Trump will meet with leaders in Vietnam and the Philippines to discuss further economic and military cooperation. Despite abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement involving several countries in East and Southeast Asia, it is clear that President Trump wants to solidify American influence in the Asia Pacific region. Beyond trade, investment, military cooperation and diplomacy, this visit is also about restoring the certainty of American leadership in the region, which has been questioned since the election of President Trump.