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Trump's tricky balancing act in Asia

On his Asia trip, US President must show interest in various regional issues while also focusing on North Korea

US President Donald Trump is making final preparations for his landmark 12-day trip to Asia, with stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

He will depart from the US tomorrow.

While North Korea will dominate the first part of the visit, which starts on Sunday, he is also being billed to outline his wider Asia policy for the first time, with an alternative vision to his predecessor Barack Obama's regional "pivot".

Previously, the Obama administration pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to underline its regional commitment, partly to push back on China's growing power and presence - a concern for some Asia allies.

But the Trump team pulled out of that accord with no replacement initiatives so far.

A key goal of the trip for Mr Trump is to dispel perceptions that he has little interest in this strategically important area of the globe.

He will seek to articulate his political, security and economic ambitions for the region in a speech anticipated in Vietnam at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Beyond allies like South Korea and Japan, the danger is that he and his team may appear on the tour so overwhelmingly focused on North Korea that he may show little affinity for the broader range of issues in the regional dialogue, from South China Sea tensions to regional counter-terrorism, and trade.

This could fuel concerns in some countries that agendas are not aligned, and that the administration cares little for them, especially after Mr Trump cut short his visit by cancelling his attendance at the East Asia Summit in the Philippines.

The US leader thus faces a diplomatic balancing act, especially in the first part of his trip, where the over-riding goal is getting Japan, South Korea and especially China, on board the US approach towards tightening screws on North Korea.

While Japanese President Shinzo Abe is closely aligned to Mr Trump, Seoul and Beijing are tougher audiences.

South Korean President Moon Jae In strongly opposes use of military force on the peninsula, while Mr Trump has declared "more dialogue a dead end" and that Mr Moon's approach amounts to "appeasement".

The challenge is greater in China, and it is reported that the White House is now conducting a root-and-branch review of policy towards Beijing.

To be sure, US-China disagreements over North Korea have softened, with Beijing tightening sanctions. Yet China still has key differences with the US.

DESTABILISE

A key reason for this is that Chinese President Xi Jinping does not want to push the regime so hard that it becomes significantly destabilised.

From his vantage point, this risks North Korea behaving even more unpredictably and/or raises the possibility of the regime's collapse.

Beijing is afraid that if the Communist regime in the hermit kingdom falls, it could undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party too.

It also worries that the collapse of order in Pyongyang could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, a potentially large influx of refugees that it would need to manage, and ultimately, the potential emergence of a pro-US successor state.

Mr Trump will make clear in Beijing the stakes in play are growing fast.

North Korea's recent nuclear test and some 15 missile launches this year have offered significant evidence that it is moving closer to developing a nuclear warhead capable of being fitted on to an intercontinental ballistic missile that can strike the US mainland - let alone key allies like Japan or South Korea in much closer proximity.

With the US and its territories, including Guam, looking increasingly vulnerable, what Beijing fears is that Mr Trump is thinking much more seriously about a pre-emptive strike on North Korea's nuclear capabilities.

Of course, Mr Trump has threatened force. Yet, scenarios range from actions like a naval blockade to enforce sanctions - including interdicting ships suspected of selling North Korea weapons abroad, one of the regime's key sources of income - through to a potential new round of peace talks on the dovish end of the spectrum.

Taken overall, Mr Trump faces a tricky task in balancing his desire to focus on North Korea while showing interest in the wider regional dialogue.

Perhaps his key test will come in Beijing, where he will seek to align more closely positions over Pyongyang, given the possibility that he could soon face his first major foreign policy crisis.

The writer is an associate at LSE Ideas 
at the London School of Economics.
 This article appeared in 
The Business Times yesterday.

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