For Asia and the rest of the world, what a United States leader does and says on overseas summit trips counts. This will be especially true when President Donald Trump makes his first swing through Asia early next month.
Trump has not yet outlined anything resembling Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” vision, but his engagements with major Asian leaders will certainly set the direction for US policy on the region for the next three years.
Observers will closely follow what they expect to be Trump’s vigorous engagements with the leaders of South Korea, China, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Trump will visit South Korea on November 7-8 for his third meeting with President Moon Jae-in since they each took office earlier this year. The two also held two mini-summits with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, focusing on their joint stance on North Korea.
Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile belligerence will once top the agenda that Trump will discuss with Moon and other regional leaders.
The White House said that Trump’s engagements will strengthen international resolve to confront the North Korean threat and ensure “the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.
Trump’s itinerary is dotted with visits to US military bases in the region – Hawaii, Japan and South Korea – which will be the first to respond to any aggressive moves in the region, including from the Korean Peninsula.
Trump also plans to meet with families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea, indicating he will highlight the dark aspects of the rogue regime that now threatens regional and global security with a nuclear arsenal and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The US president is expected to set out his position on the North Korea crisis – after months of sending out confusing and mixed signals – in an address to the National Assembly in Seoul.
Given what we have heard from the president and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump is most likely to focus on pressuring North Korea with international sanctions. Yet Trump has indicated that the military option is still viable, with his security and defence aides repeatedly insisting that, “all options are on the table”.
The concern is that such a hard-line US stance will conflict with the position of President Moon Jae-in, who prefers engagement with the North, as did his liberal predecessors Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.
Another area of concern is the fate of the five-year-old free trade agreement between the two countries.
A White House spokesperson said Trump will present the US vision for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region and underscore the important role the region plays in advancing “America’s economic prosperity”. Trump will also emphasise the importance of “fair and reciprocal” economic ties with America’s trade partners.
With South Korean and US officials already in talks to revise the Korea-US FTA, Moon may have a hard time defending against Trump’s “America First” agenda.
However, the escalating North Korea crisis offers sufficient reason for Moon and Trump to avoid discord and build a cooperative, trusting relationship.
The focus for the Trump-Moon summit must be to foster mutual confidence in each other. The most crucial thing is to send out consistent, united messages regarding the nuclear crisis. Exposure of ambiguity or differences will only work to the advantage of the young dictator in North Korea, who brandishes dangerous nuclear and missile prowess.