This week President Trump will embark in his first visit to Asia, a 13-day trip with scheduled stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. The trip is seen as a chance for the administration to clarify its stance on outstanding foreign policy issues in the region, such as the handling of North Korea and U.S. leadership in the Pacific. Cornell experts Annelise Riles, Barry Strauss and Andrew Mertha are available to discuss some of the thorniest issues to confront the U.S. delegation during the trip.
Annelise Riles is a professor of far east legal studies and anthropology at Cornell University and the founder and director of Meridian 180, a community of academics, practitioners and policy makers that works to catalyze transformative policy change in the Asia-Pacific region. Riles says that Trump’s posture in the region has emboldened those who favor militarization in Japan and raised concerns he may prove to be a ‘wild card’ vis-à-vis North Korea.
“In many Asian countries Trump is viewed with puzzlement and apprehension. The general sense is that Trump’s statements are at odds with what people thought were American values. In the wake of the collapse of Trans Pacific Partnership, there is concern that the U.S. appetite for leadership in the region is on the wane. Bilateral approaches to trade – which the Trump administration seems to favor as an alternative to regional trade agreements – are viewed as impractical.
“Trump’s posture, at home and in the region, has also emboldened those who favor Japan’s militarization. Japanese politicians feel far less pressure to accommodate their neighbors and indeed are pursuing a more ‘Japan First’ approach. Trump’s visit is unlike past trips where presidents and their diplomatic staffs used their meetings to argue for the importance of accommodation.
“As for North Korea, Japan and South Korea are far less anxious and fearful about the possibility of a nuclear attack than most Americans are, ironically. The greatest concern is that Trump may prove to be a ‘wild card’ in the carefully orchestrated and balanced geopolitics of the region, and vis-à-vis North Korea. Asian politicians and diplomats will surely seize this occasion to try to educate the President about the subtle ways they effectively manage the North Korean threat.”
Barry Strauss, professor of history at Cornell University and an expert in military strategy, says that the development of North Korea’s nuclear power is the U.S. government’s biggest failure since Vietnam. Trump can either double down or change course, he adds.
“President Donald Trump’s trip to five Asian countries is an opportunity for him to double down or change course on two key related issues: the rise of China and North Korea’s nuclear power. He will meet with key players – allies, rivals and swing states.
“Twenty-five years of U.S. foreign policy failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the biggest American failure since Vietnam and the most dangerous situation since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“The Trump administration did not cause the problem but it is now responsible for handling it. North Korea is bellicose but strategic. The president’s policy seems to be to convince the North Koreans that the U.S. is willing to fight, if need be – and to use that as leverage to make a deal. Neither side wants war but both are risking it. We can only hope that no accident leads to war.”
Andrew Mertha is professor of government and an expert in Chinese politics. He says Trump has willfully hollowed out critical components of U.S.- China relations favoring a vacuum of policy expertise that does not bode well for the future.
“In many ways, the upcoming summit is special because of the number of important high-profile issues that are on the table, including North Korea, regional military and economic influence, and the just-concluded 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
“But in my mind the thing that makes this summit different than previous ones is less the issues on the table, but rather the ways in which the U.S. has changed its approach to preparing for the summit.
“The Trump Administration has hollowed out the center of gravity of its China policy by discounting regional knowledge, sidelining the diplomatic corps, and by discontinuing dozens of hitherto ongoing policy discussions that maintain the active engagement between the two countries between summits and which form the DNA of our bilateral relationship.
“The immediate optics of the trip might appeal to Trump personally, but China is likely to be acting from a position of power and confidence, while the U.S. appears to be operating under a cloud of confusion and a relative vacuum of policy expertise. These are not good odds for positive, substantive U.S. outcomes moving forward.”