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The Asia Current Affairs Forum (ACAF) is an initiative designed to periodically assembly experts on the Asian region to debate upcoming or current issues of relevance to a broad audience.
On the 21st of November the ACAF will organize an event focused on Trump’s tour of Asia in November.

This will be an opportunity to discuss what Trump’s first year in power has meant for the region, what happened on the tour and the ramifications of this, as well as to examine the present state of US-East Asia and intra-East Asian relations in light of significant developments. These developments include the results of the Japanese elections, China’s 19th Party Congress, and the ongoing nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Experts on the topics will give a short reflection on these points, followed by a lengthy Q&A session.

US Presidents, when travelling to East Asia, have always faced the challenge of navigating the political sensitivities of their allies while safeguarding working relations with rivals, keeping peace with adversaries, and appeasing domestic audiences.
Next week will show us how Donald Trump, the 45th President of the US will deal with this dilemma. President Trump will first visit Japan. Prime Minister Abe will seek his support to further strengthen the already very strong US-Japan alliance as a means to counter rivalry from China, as well as the ever-growing threats from North Korea. The North Korea threat, an antagonistic relationship upon which Prime Minister Abe has built much of his political career, discussed over a round of golf, will come in handy for glossing over differences. These include Trump’s decision to shoot down the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement, one of Abe’s signature policies, and his push for the renegotiation of bilateral trade agreements that revived bad memories of the 1980s trade wars. President Trump will probably touch upon Japan’s trade protectionism and its trade surplus against the US, in particular in the area of cars and agricultural products. The question is to what extent they can agree on their bilateral free trade agreement. Japan appears to be more keen on relaunching the discussions on TPP rather than the free trade agreement with the US.
North Korea will also feature prominently during the South Korea part of the tour. While we can expect a belligerent Donald Trump, it will be more interesting to see whether South Korean President Moon Jae-in can get assurances that no action will be undertaken without South Korean consent. Trump’s visit might prompt a North Korean show of defiance. For those who advocate a hardline approach to North Korea, the nagging question is whether President Trump will be willing and able to back up his threats and enhance US credibility as the purported guarantor of security in the region. For progressives in Seoul, including President Moon and the majority of the South Korean population, the question of no lesser importance will be whether Trump’s aggressive rhetoric and contradictory policy statements will provoke a so-called miscalculation on the part of Pyongyang, or, lead Washington into a dead-end where pre-emptive strikes and the likely escalation of armed conflict remain the only ‘way out’. Add Trump’s pressure on Moon to renegotiate the hard-won Korea-US free-trade agreement and the only thing that holds the bilateral relationship together is the fact that Kim Jong Un’s missile and nuclear testing locks South Korea into the US-Korea alliance and subjects it to the Sino-US geopolitical rivalry.
In Beijing, President Trump will once more remind Chairman Xi Jinping that it is up to China to reign in their unruly neighbor in Pyongyang. Even if Chinese views on the North Korea question remain far apart from those of the US, it is a welcome opportunity for its leaders to portray themselves as a responsible great power, some sort of US partner, in managing world affairs. Gaining recognition as the pre-eminent regional power is commensurate with President Xi’s overarching goal of ‘rejuvenating’ China, or, as others would say, making China great again. Albeit tenuous, Xi managed to elicit from Trump what Obama had denied him: the establishment of a ‘New Type of Great Power Relations’, the tangible outcome being the calming of waters in the South China Sea, where the two spar over the correct interpretation of what is commonly referred to as the ‘rules-based international order’.

Given his administration’s general disinterest in multilateral fora and calling into question of US trade agreements with East Asia, President Trump’s appearance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam will be most insightful to follow. Most likely, the APEC summit will serve as a mere occasion for the holding of bilateral meetings with the remaining Asia-Pacific leaders, especially from Australia and Southeast Asia. These will be the minimum requirement for showing that the US is indeed still present and minimally interested in the region.
The last stop in the Philippines is indicative of this bilateral security-oriented approach. President Duterte, who reversed the anti-imperialist stance with which he had confronted Obama, welcomes US assistance in the fight against insurgencies. After the East Asia Summit, the major regional gathering hosted by Duterte, Trump will fly back to the US via Hawaii.
Without anything else than military presence to offer, President Trump will likely leave behind a divided region. It remains to be seen whether this will prompt East Asian decision-makers to take on more responsibility for the future of the region.

The speakers will be: Dr. Christian Wirth, Dr. Saori Shibata, and Dr. Koen de Ceuster. The event will be moderated by Michel Kerres, journalist and diplomatic editor at NRC Media.

The event will take place in Café Dudok, Den Haag. To participate please register by sending an e-mail to events@leidenasiacentre.nl

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