Donald Trump's visit to Asia
The US president is about to embark on a five-country tour of Asia. With tensions mounting over North Korea, what can we expect? Gideon Rachman is joined by Geoff Dyer and Katrina Manson.
Presented by Gideon Rachman and produced by Aleksandra Wisniewska
Hello, and welcome to "World Weekly" from the Financial Times. I'm Gideon Rachman. President Donald Trump is about to embark on the most significant and longest foreign trip of his presidency to date. He's going to Asia at a time when tensions over North Korea are mounting. So what can we expect?
Joining me on the line from Washington is our diplomatic correspondent Katrina Manson and here in the studio is Geoff Dyer, who's a former bureau chief for the FT in both Beijing and a correspondent in Washington. Jeff, first of all, so where is Trump going and what do you think the top of the agenda will be?
Well, as you mentioned, it's an extraordinary long trip. It's 12 days and it's going to take him to five different countries. He's going to start with the two anchor US allies in northeast Asia, Japan and South Korea. Then he goes to Beijing, he goes to China. Then he'll be going to Vietnam, where he'll attend a regional summit, the APEC Summit. And then finally, he's going to the Philippines, where he'll meet with the controversial president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.
So there's an awful lot going on, but I think there will be kind of I'd say three things that I'm particularly interested in. I mean, one is obviously the North Korea issue. And every nuance of every statement that Trump makes about North Korea will be very closely analysed to see what it means about his mindset about the idea of preventative war, if he really is prepared to take military action to try and stop the North Korean nuclear programme. That will be the top news item, I would imagine.
More broadly, I think people pay a lot of attention to just what he manages to articulate in terms of an Asian strategy. I mean, the Obama administration spent an awful lot of time trying to define what they were trying to do in Asia. And you might disagree with them or agree with them, but they certainly put a lot of effort in trying to outline a very clear American strategy for the region. Thus far, in the Trump administration there's really been a sense of drift. I mean, they have a slogan, which is to have a free and open Indo-Pacific.
But beyond that, they haven't really articulated what it is they're trying to do. And looking at something like China, their policy and their rhetoric has really been all over the place. And then I think finally, it will be very interesting to watch the aura of an American president in Asia at this moment. I mean, here you have President Trump who is substantially diminished, very, very low in opinion polls, and is just coming on the back of this week of these very dramatic indictments of three of his former campaign aides.
So the stink of the Russian inquiry will follow him very closely all around this trip in Asia. And at the same time, he's going to be meeting directly with Xi Jinping a week after he was recoronated by the Chinese Communist Party as the Chinese leader for at least the next five years, maybe for the next 15 or 20 for all we know. So the body language for once is actually going to be very, very interesting and illuminating to see how these two guys with very different sort pf political fortunes at the moment appear amongst each other, deal with each other, and just how it looks seeing them interact.
And Katrina, you're just back from a trip to Asia with James Mattis, the US Defence Secretary, where presumably he was laying a lot of the groundwork for the president's trip. What did you glean? What are the main takeaways from that trip?
Well, one of the most interesting things that's happened in the past few weeks that is Rex Tillerson, secretary of state, and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis have really gone hard on trying to make long-lasting p overtures towards this region that they are now suddenly referring to as the Indo-Pacific. And we can expect to hear Trump use this phrase much more. Now, it seems to revolve around three key ideas.
One is the rise of India, which both Tillerson and Mattis are now backing diplomatically and in security terms, as well. On the sidelines of these meetings in southeast Asia, Mr. Mattis met with the Indian defence minister and the US is rolling out a real menu of high grade military options to India that they hope will buy into US military hardware, but also come along with Japan and Australia to represent a new security architecture in the region. Now, if that can actually work, if they can deliver that, this is really the first step in a hope that they can build up India as a bulwark against China.
And that really is the key effort that they are trying to develop. In Mr. Mattis's meetings in southeast Asia, he of course was trying to focus on its alliances, alliances, alliances. Now, this is really quite a different focus from the one that Mr. Trump has had with his own America first rhetoric. But as far as the main institutions of state and defence are going, they are making a huge outreach to reassure allies in southeast Asia that the US is there and will be there.
Now, these meetings took place in Manilla, a country whose president has already lambasted the Obama administration. But even under Mr. Trump, who has extended some overtures towards Duterte, Duterte called America this year a lousy place and he's a real volatile character. Mr. Mattis had a good meeting with him, I understand. And right at the top of the meeting, he said, I'm going to make sure I'm politically correct and stick to my script.
Now, the key question will be, will he continue to stick his script when he meets Mr. Trump later on in his visit? And the third thing, of course, is North Korea and unifying the region and using real leverage on China to get what the US wants on North Korea, which isn't always entirely clear. But Mr. Mattis made it quite clear that he wants to support the diplomats and that has been his mantra throughout this trip, even when he was on the border with North Korea, looking right into it.
And Jeff, of course that's a very interesting kind of tension, even within the Trump administration, where President Trump likes to talk about fire and fury, make it very clear that at least rhetorically he's very drawn to military action, and Mattis and Tillerson seem to be pushing the diplomatic angle. Do you think this is all carefully coordinated? I mean, one would like to believe there's a strategy somewhere there.
You would like to believe that. And to me, actually some of the most significant statements have actually come from the National Security Advisor General McMaster. He's said on several occasions quite recently on US TV that he thinks North Korea cannot be deterred. And that seems to me kind of a key point of view, really. If he really does believe that, then that seems to be very, very important.
You might think that is just part of this process of trying to what they would say reestablish deterrence against North Korea. So you talk tough, you use some quite dramatic rhetoric as a way of showing that you really are firm and you really wish for them to push back. But that phrase could also easily become the logical leap which justifies a preemptive war against a North Korean nuclear programme. So if you see not just Trump, but also other senior figures the administration using that kind of language, that I think is very important.
Did you get the impression, Katrina, on the trip that the war drums are beating, whatever Mattis's private inclinations might be?
No. I think he's very clear that war is not an option. And you certainly get a very visceral experience of that when you get on a helicopter in Seoul and fly really just 20 minutes and you're write at the North Korean border, this very heavily guarded demilitarised zone with two million landmines and artillery facing right at millions of people in Seouls who are within instant reach of that firepower should war ever break out. And I think the defence establishment has an extremely good understanding of quite what the risks are with North Korea.
Now, Mr. Mattis makes it very clear that should North Korea launch an attack against the US, it would respond with massive military might and would be destroyed, which many people have also sought to interpret Mr. Trump's threat of fire and fury also being an indication of a retaliatory attack, rather than a preventative strike. Certainly, there is talk, there are war games, there is war planning about how a preventative strike could work.
Mr. Mattis has talked rather elusively about having some military options. Now, he hasn't spelled those out, he refuses to spell out what those are. But he believes that there may be some steps the US could take that wouldn't actually provoke a retaliation by North Korea. It's not clear what those might be, but he thinks he can do it without actually launching a full scale nuclear war. Now, that's really, really important.
And right on the border, he said, our goal is not war. He quotes Mr. Tillerson all the time and the pair of them really trying to shore each other up. Now, when they talk about Mr. Trump's more fiery rhetoric, they don't always echo that rhetoric, but there is a sense that it isn't unuseful to have a sense of the threat really crank up and that they can be, as it were, the good cops to Mr. Trump's bad cop.
Now, of course, it's going to be a two-way dialogue. Trump is going to meet with his Asian partners, friends, sort of semi foes like the Chinese. So Jeff, what do you think he's going to hear back, in particular from China, which is-- let's not forget-- directly threatened by what's happening in North Korea and a war in the Korean peninsula would be a disaster for China?
Yeah. I mean, i think he'll get very, very strong messages, specifically from the Chinese and the South Koreans, about how crazy it would be to conduct a preemptive war against the North Koreans. And what they will say is precisely what Katrina just said, the prospect that hundreds of thousands of people within a few hours in Seoul would die if the US actually did try to take military action against North Korea.
That will be the dominant message that will he will face when he's there. With the Chinese, I mean, it's going to be terribly interesting just to watch how he behaves because his rhetoric and the policy of the administration have really been all over the map in China over the last few months. I mean, they've threatened all sorts of action on the trade front but haven't really done anything about it, which has caused all sorts of disturbance in the US economy.
It's actually caused the trade deficit to rise in the US as people import all sorts of steel and aluminium in the expectation of future tariffs. And the even just the things you said about Xi Jinping, I mean, his statement about the Chinese Communist Party Congress last week, it almost came across as if he was fawning over Xi Jinping.
It struck me as faintly envious. I think he said, people call him the King of China.
Yes, a real strongman. He doesn't have to deal with this pesky Congress and these inquiries. And so all those things, I think, will be very closely watched to try and understand what it is he's actually trying to do or what he actually thinks about having to deal with China.
Yeah. I mean, Katrina, on that specifically China piece of it, if one can leave aside North Korea-- which I know is very difficult-- where do you think Trump is on this continuum between confrontation with China and actually trying to get a decent relationship with them? I gather he's going to arrive in Beijing with a lot of CEOs in tow, which suggests a business focus.
Well, trying to look at where Trump is on the spectrum is a kind of constantly changing graph. I think there's a very basic effort to maintain the South China Sea as an important issue. Both Mattis and Tillerson have repeatedly emphasised the mantra of freedom of navigation. The US has maintained the pressure on the South China Sea, where of course China has built artificial islands and equipped them with military installations.
Now, the US used to have the Philippines on its side. It actually undertook a legal claim against those islands, which it won but very little has happened as a result. And in that sense, the US has really lost regional traction on the South China Sea issue. And it's not clear if it can unify the region sufficiently against China to halt some of its extraordinary strategic military expansion. Now, to weave in North Korea here is actually very important because aside from North Korea in itself as an issue, it's quite a useful rallying cry.
The US has tried to put China under pressure because of North Korea, but also unify a region that is really often very fragmented through the cause of North Korea to put that kind of diplomatic and defence pressure on China. Alongside that, though, as you say, you have this real play for economic gains to the US, a sense of a trade deficit that Mr. Trump simply won't accept, a real attempt to bang the drum for US business at a time where the tone of exchange between the US and China at first really very wholesome, we had a visit to the US, it came up in a very friendly manner, but with the very strategic involvement of launching missiles at Syria during that visit. And there is always a sense that Mr. Trump wants the Chinese to know that he does also have a bite, as well as a bark.
So Jeff, to conclude, I mean, there's so many different themes floating around, but do you get a sense that this is going to be, albeit with the crisis in North Korea in the background, a fairly conventional American visit to Asia, a restatement of all the kinds of things that American presidents generally say when they visit Asia or are we going to see an America first policy from Trump that turns a lot of old assumptions on their heads?
So my hunch would be that the White House will try to orchestrate the first option, a very conventional US trip that reassures allies and Japan and South Korea, tries to make it seem like they can do business but be tough with China, and attend a regional summit. It's like ticking all the right boxes for a conventional American strategy. But the wild card is the behaviour of this president.
I mean, I think one thing to understand is he's going to be away for 12 days-- away from the White House, away from his bed. He's a person who doesn't seem to react very well to unpredictable circumstances. He's going to get tired and grumpy, he's going to be very busy, it's going be a very stressful trip. And so the chances for him to go off script, to say things that upset people, to make a diplomatic mess are really quite substantial here.
And of course, when it comes to this idea of mollycoddling the president, unlike his own senior administration officials, his vise president, his secretary of state, and his secretary of defence he is not going to visit the Demilitarised Zone in North Korea. Now, his own officials say that's because there isn't time in the schedule, this is a 12-day trip. And what is much more likely is that this is an attempt to rein in Mr. Trump so that any hint of loose rhetoric will not be unleashed on the border as he stares North Korea down.
Well, that gives us something to look out for. Thank you very much, indeed, to Geoff Dyer here in London and to Katrina Manson in Washington. That's it for this week. Until next week, goodbye.