Finesse was not an attribute of President Donald Trump’s visit to Europe last May for the Nato and G-7 summits.
America’s allies were scolded about trade surpluses and not pulling their weight in collective defence. Even his body language became a talking point, when a public handshake with the French president became a test of physical strength, and the prime minister of Montenegro appeared to be elbowed out of the way at a gathering.
The tour clearly demoralised a number of European leaders, as illustrated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement that Europe could no longer rely on longstanding transatlantic ties.
The hope is that Trump’s two-week visit to Asia, which begins today, will not undermine decades-old partnerships but rather live up to the White House’s declaration that the tour will demonstrate US commitment to alliances, and its leadership in “promoting a free and open Indo Pacific region”. As proof of Trump’s interest in the region, American officials cited the 42 calls he has made to Indo-Pacific counterparts and the 10 leaders from the region he has hosted since January.
Form counts, of course, but substance will matter more when Trump stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. At bilateral discussions and also at the Apec summit in Da Nang and Asean events in Manila, a key concern will be the US response to North Korean provocations. Trump’s tough talk, about the “fire and fury” that the North will face if it goes too far, might reassure the Japanese and South Koreans that their defence pacts with the Americans will be strongly upheld.
But that will grate on China, which has its own treaty obligations to defend North Korea against unprovoked aggression. The Chinese preference is for greater restraint on the part of all, in order to lower tensions in the region. Hence the need for Trump to show finesse in his public stance and private discussions with Asian leaders.
Messaging will be critical during his Asian trip, not just about dominant security concerns but also trade issues, especially in the light of the economic nationalism favoured by Trump.
There is no doubt that in withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he seriously damaged US credibility in the region. The historical backdrop to this is the sense of insecurity among Asian allies which flares up every time a new administration takes over in Washington. This time the angst is acute because of heightened threats and China’s geostrategic goals. Thus, the region will be weighing carefully Trump’s key moves and statements during this trip.