Bush, George

Trump Heads to Asia With an Ambitious Agenda but Little to Offer

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In Vietnam, his aides said, Mr. Trump will articulate a new policy for Asia built on the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region. The idea, they acknowledge, originated with the Japanese, who have been urging the United States to bond with three other maritime democracies — Japan, Australia, and India — to contain a rising China.

“This trip is a great opportunity to demonstrate America’s, and the Trump administration’s, commitment to the Indo-Pacific,” said the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, using what seemed likely to become a catchphrase for the Trump administration, much as the “Asia pivot” was for the Obama administration.

Japanese officials planted the Indo-Pacific idea with two American counterparts: Brian H. Hook, the State Department’s policy planning director, and Matthew Pottinger, the Asia director in the National Security Council. But it dates further back, to a 19th-century American naval officer and historian, Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose writings about maritime power have long been studied in Japan but who has only recently drawn attention in the White House.

The problem is, it is unclear that Mr. Trump is bringing any initiatives to Asia to further that vision. He withdrew the United States from the most obvious regional project, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He is pushing bilateral trade deals to replace that accord, but Japan and other Asian countries are reluctant to open negotiations, while South Korea is balking at Mr. Trump’s demand to renegotiate its existing trade agreement.

“When the region looks at Trump, they see uncertainty, they see unpredictability, they see a stepping back from key agreements like T.P.P.,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a former senior adviser on Asia to President Barack Obama. “Asian policy makers have a really hard time understanding if he has a coherent strategy.”

And yet, Mr. Medeiros added, “Nobody in Asia can afford to alienate the American president, as unreliable and distasteful as he and his policies may be.”

Indeed, Asian leaders are sparing no fanfare for Mr. Trump. Mr. Abe has invited him to play golf in Tokyo on Sunday, reciprocating for a round at Mr. Trump’s resort in Palm Beach, Fla., in February. Mr. Xi is throwing him what officials characterize as a “state visit-plus,” with a tour of the Forbidden City and an inspection of troops.

Mr. Trump is bringing 29 chief executives to Beijing, where the administration hopes to announce billions of dollars of new deals for American industry. But officials are playing down expectations that China will agree to any meaningful opening of its markets.

In some respects, said Michael J. Green, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Mr. Trump’s visit is more akin to a trade mission by a Dutch prime minister or a French president than a summit meeting of the leaders of two superpowers.

Still, Mr. Trump plans to make the North Korea crisis the centerpiece of his stops in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing. General McMaster said Thursday that the administration was considering putting North Korea on the government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In Beijing, Mr. Trump will press Mr. Xi to do more to use China’s influence to curb Pyongyang’s behavior. Among his requests, said a person briefed by the White House, are a total cutoff of purchases of North Korean coal, closing North Korean bank accounts and sending home North Korean workers.

“China is definitely doing more,” General McMaster said, “but obviously it’s not enough.”

He said Mr. Trump’s relationship with Mr. Xi, nurtured in their meeting at Mar-a-Lago in April, would help the president. But analysts noted that Mr. Xi, who emerged from the recent Communist Party congress as perhaps the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, has less of a reason to avoid friction with Mr. Trump — either over North Korea or trade, where Mr. Trump’s protectionist instincts could antagonize Beijing.

Mr. Xi demonstrated his self-confidence by reaching out to South Korea to settle the dispute over the South’s deployment of an American antimissile system on the Korean Peninsula. At one level, that underscored China’s inability to drive a wedge between the United States and its ally.

But it also complicated Mr. Trump’s efforts to build a coalition to pressure North Korea, since it more closely aligns the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, who favors diplomatic engagement over threats of military force, with China, which also favors diplomacy.

Beyond that, the rapprochement illustrated that Asian nations are finding it harder to resist China’s embrace, especially at a time when the United States seems unpredictable and unreliable.

“In Southeast Asia, you see countries tilting toward China, particularly after the American withdrawal from T.P.P,” said Mr. Green, who served as a top Asia adviser to President George W. Bush. “They’re not switching sides, they’re just hedging.”

“It’s not clear what the Southeast Asian part of the trip is about,” he added, “other than Trump forming personal relationships with Southeast Asian leaders, some of whom are problematic.”

One of those leaders is Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president who has ordered extrajudicial killings of thousands of suspected drug dealers. A senior administration official said he and Mr. Trump had a “warm rapport.”

In Asia, some experts played down the significance of Mr. Trump’s Russia-related problems.

“That’s domestic politics,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat now teaching at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. “American political leaders, including Mr. Trump, are hopefully wise enough to do their job on an external front even while they have to be more scared domestically.”

But others said the mushrooming investigation would deepen doubts about Mr. Trump’s reliability.

“It’s a question of optics,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political-science professor at De La Salle University in Manila. “The shadow of impeachment will cast doubt on whether Trump can deliver on any major initiative he promises.”

Mr. Trump’s performance over the next 11 days could alter that perception, for better or worse, which is why people inside and outside the White House are worried by a schedule that some liken to the deadly forced march of prisoners during World War II.

“This is actually two trips jammed together,” said Daniel R. Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs until March. “Either one would be pretty ambitious. Jammed together, they form a kind of Bataan Death March.”

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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