President Trump arrives tomorrow in Tokyo, the first stop in a marathon two-summit, five nation, 12-day tour of Asia. It will be the US leader’s first official tour of Asia, and the longest visit of any American president to the region since the Asia sojourn of George H.W. Bush in 1991.
Trump’s decision to spend so much time in Asia is a welcome surprise. Numerous reports had quoted anonymous White House staffers expressing a desire to minimize Trump’s time in Asia lest their 71 year-old boss get “cranky.” Trump’s dislike of global travel is well-known, as is his distain for multilateral summit meetings.
In the end, apparently, those considerations were overridden by concerns that Asia-Pacific leaders are losing faith in America’s commitment to preserve stability in the region and that, increasingly, many are hedging their bets by cozying up to China. At the last minute, Trump even added a visit to the Philippines to attend a Pacific Rim security meeting the administration had earlier insisted he’d skip.
The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial, proclaimed Trump’s visit to East Asia as “the most important trip of his Presidency so far, and the most important Asian trip by a U.S. President in more than a decade,” adding that Trump’s meetings and speeches “will send a message, for good or ill, about the U.S. commitment to meet the challenges of North Korea’s nuclear breakout and China’s bid for regional hegemony.”
The White House used Trump’s visit to try out a new diplomatic formulation, reframing a region the US has traditionally referred to as the Asia-Pacific as the “Indo-Pacific.” The new phrase, reportedly urged by Japan, is meant to highlight US relations not just with China and East Asia but a broader collection of nations including India and Australia. But the term seems more of a rebranding effort than a major policy shift. Few analysts expected substantive breakthroughs from Trump’s Asia tour.
Washington Post Beijing correspondent John Pomfret, in this essay, argues Trump’s mixed signals on Asia Pacific affairs have created a crisis of confidence in American leadership and destabilized the region. Since Trump took office, says Pomfret, he has “launched the most significant U.S. retreat from Asia since the Vietnam War.”
Pomfret faults Trump for withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and undercutting his own strategy for dealing with North Korea by threating to rewrite US trade agreements with South Korea and vowing to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea even as his own State Department was conducting talks with North Korean officials at the United Nations. Pomfret also blames the US leader for playing “fast and loose” with Japan, America’s most important Asian ally. Trump’w fundamental problem, according to Pomfret, is that he “does not seem to understand the benefits of alliances. In his world, all foreigners are out to get the United States. He can’t fathom that America First is not sufficient to deal with the multifaceted challenge of China, when, in reality, the United States needs all the friends it can get.”
Trump’s visit to China will be particularly worth watching. Beijing plans to welcome the US leader with what China’s US ambassador Cui Tiankai has called a “state visit-plus,” with lots of pageantry, extra-luxurious sleeping quarters and special culinary arrangements (no spicy foods), to keep Trump in good spirits. Whether flattery and grand gestures will be enough to head off tension between the Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping remains to be seen. Many China analysts predict Xi’s strategy will be to show goodwill and make a flurry of small-bore trade concessions while shrugging off US demands that Beijing move more aggressively to sanction North Korea.
Meanwhile, like many frequent China visitors, I’ll be watching one very specific measure of trust between the two world leaders: whether during Trump’s China visit Xi will allow the US commander in chief unrestricted access to his Twitter account.
Enjoy your weekend.
Trump's Asia Tour
Where’s Donald? A day-by-day, city-by-city guide to Trump’s Asia tour. The Express
Trump visits Pearl Harbor. The president begins his Asia tour by laying a wreath the USS Arizona Memorial to honor the more than 2,400 Americans killed in a surprise attack by Japan. ABC News
North Korea, trade and pineapple pens. Everything you need to know about Trump’s Asia visit. TIME
What to watch for during Trump’s Asia trip. Trump’s Asian odyssey will take him to five countries and two international summits. A primer on what to watch for at each stop. NPR
North Korea tops Trump’s Asian agenda. But his Asian counterparts will have more varied agendas. Wall Street Journal
Adding the Pacific Rim summit. The US president will add a stop in the Philippines to his Asia tour in order to attend a summit meeting of Pacific Rim leaders. The decision to tack an extra day onto his already marathon tour of the region was meant to show U.S. commitment to the region. New York Times
Not big in Japan. Ivanka Trump, invited by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to address a business audience ahead of her father’s arrival in Tokyo, fails to draw a crowd. Daily Mail
Homeward bound. Ivanka will not accompany her father visits to South Korea and China. She will return from Japan to the US over the weekend to lobby for Trump’s proposed tax bill, which Trump hopes to sign into law before Christmas. South China Morning Post
Trump gives Korea’s demilitarized zone a pass. With the exception of George H.W. Bush, all Trump’s predecessors since Ronald Reagan have peered through binoculars across the border between North and South Korea. Trump officials say they view such visits to be cliche. He’ll visit Camp Humphreys instead. Bloomberg
Politics and Policy
Travelling without borders. Bucking what has become a convention for US presidents, the “usually confrontational” Donald Trump will be skipping a visit to the demilitarized zone that borders North Korea on his maiden Asia tour next week. Officials say there is no time on Trump’s 12-day schedule to fit in the visit, but observers are concerned that any unscripted remarks by Trump could further inflame tensions between the US and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear missile build-up. Financial Times
Thought leadership. Universities across China are establishing departments dedicated to the study of Xi Jinping Thought. Top institutions such as the Tianjin University of Finance and Economics and Beijing’s Renmin or People’s University are promoting “study groups” and programs to help other universities to incorporate Xi Thought into textbooks and classrooms. Washington Post
Return to roots. Party members head to Shanghai. President Xi Jinping and his team of top party cadres made a surprise visit to Shanghai this week, where they paid homage to the party’s birthplace and its founding fathers. and re-affirmed their commitment to the party and its values. Reuters
Eyes on you. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist party’s anti-graft watchdog, will beef up its national security efforts by passing a new supervision law and launching a new commission during its annual parliament meeting next year to expand on and institutionalize President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Guardian
By the book. Academic publisher Springer Nature, which publishes science journals Nature and Scientific American, will comply with the Chinese government’s demands to restrict access to over 1,000 of its articles within China. The company said that the move was “regrettable but necessary” and that the blocked content make up less than 1 per cent of its total global content. Reuters
In Case You Missed It
China’s soft power comes with a very hard edge Financial Times
A Big Brother approach has qualities that would benefit society Financial Times
China tests new spy drones near space ‘death zone’ South China Morning Post
Chinese Tech Giants Target the Next Frontier in Online Insurance: Life Wall Street Journal
Trade and Economy
Bank banned. The Trump administration has banned China’s Bank of Dandong from operating in the US, as it believes the bank was complicit in helping North Korea launder funds by evading financial sanctions. The ban is part of the Trump administration’s stepped-up efforts to pressure Beijing to put a halt on North Korea’s plans to build nuclear missiles that can reach American cities. South China Morning Post
Money matrimony. Russia said this week that it is developing its own payment system named Karta Mir, which it hopes to peg to China’s Unionpay network. The ride on Xi Jinping’s push to globalize China’s currency, as well as reduce dependence on Western payment systems such as Visa and Mastercard, and “avoid the problems that sometimes arise when you use [them]”, said Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev after a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang this week. Reuters
Signed, sealed and soon to deliver. After officially confirming plans to set up a Tesla manufacturing facility in China, Elon Musk added this week that he plans for production to start by 2020. The factory will primarily build Model 3 and Model Y cars, Tesla’s forthcoming and affordably priced crossover SUV, but will produce Model S and Model X units too. TechCrunch
Sold to the highest bidder. A group of buyers led by Chinese oil and gas company China Energy Reserve & Chemicals Group has paid a record $5.15 billion — the highest amount ever transacted for a single building — for The Center in Hong Kong, an office tower formerly owned by Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing. China Energy said it bought The Center as a Hong Kong base and in response to the Chinese government’s call to go global and “we just bought the building, but we haven’t really thought through the details.” South China Morning Post
Technology and Innovation
Tax talks. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, is looking to pass a draft law requiring all online retailers to register with authorities and pay the same taxes that brick-and-mortar sellers do. The new law will apply to business and individual entrepreneurs looking to set up online shops on platforms such as Taobao and social media like Weibo and WeChat but vendors of handicrafts, agricultural products and skills such as language tutoring are exempt. Sixth Tone
Tech talks. Ahead of Trump’s Asia visit, Xi Jinping this week met with American tech leaders including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Tesla chief Elon Musk and Microsoft leader Satya Nadella in Beijing, where Xi spoke at the annual meeting of Chinese and foreign advisers in Tsinghua University. Cook, Zuckerberg, Musk and Nadella are members of the university’s School of Economics and Management, along with Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Pony Ma and Baidu’s Robin Li. Wall Street Journal
Giving face. Chinese state-owned venture capital and sovereign wealth funds are pouring money into artificial intelligence start-ups, in a big to have China outrival the US in the field. Beijing-based facial recognition company Megvii Face++ this week raised $460m in an investment round led by Chinese government funds as well as private Chinese investors including Alibaba’s payments affiliate Ant Financial. Financial Times
Book value. China Literature, the online reader arm of Tencent Holdings is expected to raise US$1.1 billion for the company in its Hong Kong initial public offering next week. Tencent and existing investors have priced China Literature’s 151 million shares at HK$55 ($7) apiece, giving China Literature a market capitalization of HK$49.9 billion (S$6.4 billion) after shares begin trading next Wednesday. Caixin