Trump to get fanfare, not substance

Editorial | Nov 6, 2017
US President Donald Trump has arrived in Japan as part of his longest overseas visit so far.

In contrast to his previous trips to the Middle East and Europe, Trump's Asian tour is getting close attention from the rest of the world, due to a host of complicated geopolitical issues, ranging from the North Korean nuclear crisis to tensions in the South China Sea.

The itinerary has been carefully laid out. But even White House officials would agree the greatest threat to its success is the unpredictability of Trump himself.

However, as far as issues are concerned, the next few days should be eventful, with the tour kicking off in Japan, then carrying on to South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Soon after landing in Tokyo, Trump played a round of golf with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

There's little doubt Japan is America's most trusted ally in Asia. Military ties can't be stronger, but a trade imbalance grates on Trump. While Abe's unstoppable rise in the recent election had much to do with the North Korean threat, will Trump use Abe's dependence on the US for security to turn the screws to reverse the imbalance after golfing?

Trump's stop in South Korea is the shortest - just a single day - which is being read as a slap in the face of South Korean President Moon Jae In, whose advocacy of engagement with "Rocket Man" Kim Jong Un in the north has repeatedly trashed by Trump as useless.

Amid protests by the South Korean media, the "shortfall" is being compensated with a special arrangement for Trump to address the National Assembly. Before long, we'll know if the speech will be "major" enough to clear the confusion caused by conflicting messages regularly given by Trump and his officials.

Obviously, Trump's stop in Beijing is the most eye-catching of all, because President Xi Jinping has just gone through an unprecedented rise in power. Trump will push Xi on North Korea and Sino-US trade.

In the past, Beijing would have propped up the yuan, or freed one or two Chinese dissidents as a goodwill gesture. There hasn't been any such action so far, with the yuan weakening instead.

Meanwhile, Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, hasn't been granted greater freedom as many people wished.

While it remains to be seen if Liu will be allowed to leave China to seek medical treatment, it's apparent that behind the grand reception is an elevated degree of rivalry.

The revelation that Xi had written to Kim to propose warmer relations between Beijing and Pyongyang was made by state media a few days prior to Trump's visit.

It's worth noting that Xi will pay official visits to Vietnam and Laos immediately after Trump leaves Vietnam for the Philippines. Beijing's intent to counter-balance Washington's influence on Vietnam - which directly faces the South China Sea - can't be any clearer.

Trump will have all the praise he wants, but not necessarily the substance he longs for.

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December 2018