Oct 29, 2017

Trump goes to China

Saul Loeb / Pool Photo via AP

President Trump leaves Friday for the most consequential foreign trip of his presidency — a five country, 12 day tour of Asia. It's the longest visit to Asia by an American president in a quarter of a century.

The stakes couldn't be higher: North Korea races towards a miniaturized nuke that can hit American cities; China keeps propping up North Korea, stealing U.S. intellectual property, and forcing American investors to hand over their technology to Chinese state entities; and American businesses watch with horror as Trump flirts with blowing up the landmark U.S. trade deal with South Korea.

In the midst of all this, Trump will try to reassure America's treaty allies in the region that even as he's throwing trade relationships into flux he won't be the U.S. president that abandons the Asia Pacific and leaves American allies there vulnerable to Chinese domination. Trump wants to dramatically show his commitment to the region and to the post-WWII order that the U.S. built up in Asia. He'll visit several military bases and will flex America's military power.

Over the past few days I've spoken to senior administration officials about what to expect from the trip. Here's what I've learned:

  • Big picture: You won't hear any major new policy announcements; but Trump will hammer on two themes — physical security (aka North Korea and China's nefarious behavior in the South China Sea), and economic security (aka reshaping U.S. trade with Asian countries.)The first two legs, Japan and South Korea, Trump will mostly address physical security, including a major speech at the National Assembly in Seoul. South Korea's President Moon Jae-in has invited Trump to visit the military base, Camp Humphreys. Administration officials expect the visit to the military base will highlight two things: that South Korea is sharing the financial burden of its defense and that President Moon, who campaigned as a liberal dove, is now fully committed to defending his country against an emboldened Kim Jong-un.The final two legs, Trump visits Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, a free trade forum for 21 Pacific Rim economies. Finally, Trump attends the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in the Philippines.
  • The White House considers China the fulcrum of the trip — and it's deliberately positioned that way, as the middle stop of the five countries.
  • The consensus view at the highest level of the Trump administration is that multiple U.S. administrations have pursued the same failed China strategy and that the economic relationship between the two countries is getting worse not better.
  • The way Trump sees it: China already knows what the U.S. needs because every time an American president visits Beijing he announces the same litany of complaints and demands. China, in Trump's view, does the bare minimum to stop American complaining for a while, only to continue to take advantage of the U.S. economically.
  • But, but, but: That all sounds nice, but I still have no idea what Trump plans to do to change the situation with China. Nobody I've spoken to inside the White House will tell me.

Bottom line: Trump knows past policies haven't worked when it comes to China and North Korea. But we still have no idea how the Trump administration plans to achieve its stated goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

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