- President Donald Trump is headed to Asia for nearly two weeks, leaving behind a series of political battles to focus on trade and security. Trump has been extremely critical of China, but he has made progress with President Xi Jinping since taking office. Trump’s business envoy may look to strike a deal in natural gas, but the tech industry is conspicuously absent from his trip.
- Joe Raedle/Getty Images
President Donald Trump will travel to Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor on Friday before kicking off the longest presidential trip to Asia since George H.W. Bush vomited and fainted at a dinner with Japan’s prime minister in 1992.
Trump leaves behind the recent indictments and criminal charges against some of his campaign officials and advisers, as part of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s 2016 election meddling, and a fight in Congress over his proposed tax plan.
In Asia, Trump will address security and trade concerns in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Among the US, South Korea, and Japan, the North Korean missile threat looms large, and Trump is expected to reaffirm the US’s commitment to the countries’ alliance, though he has in the past questioned whether the Asian allies pay their fair shares.
With China, the emerging world power that Trump during his campaign accused of currency manipulation and “killing us” with a trade deficit, the US appears to actually have made progress. China now cooperates with the US on containing and limiting trade with North Korea like never before.
China apparently dropped its opposition to the deployment of missile-defense batteries to South Korea and normalized relations in a “reversal of an ineffective and costly policy on the part of China,” Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, told The New York Times.
Additionally, China’s concessions come at a time when Trump has the US Navy routinely challenging Beijing’s aggressive maritime claims in the South China Sea, something that routinely angers China.
Importantly, Trump’s visit to China comes as its president, Xi Jinping, consolidates power to a level never seen since Chairman Mao’s multidecade rule. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just won an election and reaffirmed his mandate to rule the island nation as assertively as has been done since World War II.
- Reuters/Carlos Barria
In the Philippines, Trump will meet the popular populist Rodrigo Duterte, who looks to wrap up a violent drug war that has killed thousands and crush an Islamist insurgency in Marawi.
Duterte has at times been hostile toward the US, and the Philippines, a US ally, can be seen as a bellwether in the shifting power dynamic in Asia. In March, Duterte lamented that despite US support he couldn’t stop China from building islands and militarizing the seas just outside the Philippines.
“What do you want me to do? Declare war against China? I can’t. We will lose all our military and policemen tomorrow and we (will be) a destroyed nation,” Duterte said at the time. Trump may try to reassure Duterte, whose country holds massive US military bases in the Pacific.
Art of the deal?
- Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
On trade, Trump’s accompanying business envoy will include mainly energy firms instead of tech or financial companies – possibly playing to a US strength, and possibly covering up a tech industry that’s unenthusiastic about the current administration.
Tech companies face an uphill battle in China, where the US maintains that the government favors domestic firms and can force foreign tech firms to give up intellectual property only to find those trade secrets leaked to Chinese firms. On the finance side, some companies privately say Beijing informs domestic banks of important banking decisions before foreign firms.
Trump’s rocky relationship with US industry leaders may also contribute to the makeup of his business envoy, with an unnamed member of the business community telling Reuters that “very few want to stick their heads up and be perceived as complaining directly” about China’s treatment of foreign companies and that “and even fewer trust this White House to do anything helpful on their issues.”
But the US remains competitive in energy prices, and Trump’s chief diplomat, Rex Tillerson, the former head of the energy giant Exxon Mobil, will accompany him on the trip.
Reaching a deal to sell off some of the US’s glut of natural gas to Asian partners would be a trade victory for Trump in Asia.
But with Trump a full 12 hours ahead of the US in China, and similarly removed from the US time zone, expect quieter days in which Trump news comes after events take place, instead of as a live show.