Trump obsessed with trade gap, but Asia has other worries
President Donald Trump seems focused on the US trade imbalance as he tours Asia this week, asking his hosts to buy more American products, services and even weapons. Countries in this region have very different expectations of Washington, though.
Trump lands in Beijing today after official visits to Japan and South Korea on his 12-day trip to the Far East.
The US economy and trade are high on his agenda, but if he wants to shore up East Asia’s increasingly fragile peace, stability and prosperity, he must relax his “America First” stance and pay serious attention to other issues during talks with regional leaders.
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions dominated Trump’s meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul. Both countries are in the firing line of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, and are seeking ways to pressure Pyongyang into less bellicose and more predictable behaviour.
They see the United States as their chief ally in that effort.
On Tuesday, Trump changed tack from his earlier threat of “fire and fury” against North Korea and urged Pyongyang to “come to the table” and “make a deal” to end the stand-off. He also linked both issues – trade and North Korea – by calling on Japan and South Korea to buy more US military hardware to defend against Pyongyang’s threat.
In Tokyo, he said that Japan could shoot North Korean missiles out of the sky if it bought the sophisticated US shield, and suggested the government should reverse its post-war pacifist stance.
In Seoul, Trump said South Korea would be purchasing billions of dollars worth of military equipment from the US. Sounding more like a salesman than a statesman, the president declared that “Frankly, for them, [it] makes a lot of sense and for us it means jobs, it means reducing our trade deficit.”
That deficit has grown to an eye-watering $585 billion, up roughly 7 per cent from last year. It’s being fed by cheap imports to the US, which Trump insists are costing Americans their jobs. He has raised the trade gap with Asian leaders hosted at the White House, including our own Prayut Chan-o-cha, Malaysia’s Najib Razak and Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong.
In Beijing, Trump will be seeking to apply pressure over what he considers China’s unfair trade practices, as well as calling for tougher measures against North Korea. However, he may find it difficult to sway President Xi Jinping, who has just been handed a ringing endorsement for another five years in charge of the country by the Chinese Communist Party Congress. Beijing may well decide to tighten the vise on North Korea, which is dependent on China for almost 95 per cent of its trade. But the screws will be turned in Beijing’s interest, not that of the US.
China is the most important leg of Trump’s Asia visit, since relations between Washington and Beijing affect not only Northeast but also Southeast Asia, where Trump will head later this week.
The president will land in Vietnam tomorrow to attend the Asia Pacific Economic and Cooperation (Apec) summit before heading to the capital Hanoi.
Vietnam’s leaders expect to see strong economic and security commitments from Trump, after his administration withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade deal to which Hanoi is a signatory. Vietnam is also embroiled in maritime territory disputes with China, an issue firmly on Washington’s radar. Vietnam needs allies to bolster its position in the dispute after Asean solidarity crumbled when the Philippines softened its stance towards China.
Trump will take off for the Philippines on Sunday to attend the Asean leaders summit. As the current chair of Asean, Manila will be seeking to ensure the regional grouping stays on Washington’s radar. It also needs US help to combat a growing terrorist menace centred on the south of the country where Islamic State supporters have been operating.
Trade is undoubtedly a key concern for the US and its allies in Southeast Asia. But if Trump ignores other core elements of America’s relationship with our region, and chooses to adopt a short-sighted “America First” approach this week, the consequences for both the United States and Asia will be dire and prolonged.
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