Trump must sell America as key leader in Asia as he visits region

Trump must sell America as key leader in Asia as he visits region
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As President Trump makes his way through five countries over 12 days on his Asia roadshow, his agenda will be dominated by discussions of North Korea, China, and trade. There are good reasons for this. North Korea has or will soon have the capability to strike America with a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile, the United States is desperately seeking a way to make more money off its goods trade with the most economically dynamic region in the world, and China, which is central to both the president’s trade and North Korea concerns, is working hard to elbow the United States out of its traditional position of regional leadership.

All of these concerns matter, but what matters most in the context of this particular overseas trip is an entirely different issue: getting the message right. The president needs to articulate and sell a coherent strategy for the U.S. role in Asia. The Trump administration has been operating at multiple levels with multiple messages leaving its allies, partners and others confused as to U.S. priorities in its dealing with the region.

First, there is Trump’s Twitter diplomacy, in which he expresses the emotion of the moment, often oscillating wildly between affection and anger. On the one hand, he has proclaimed his great admiration for Xi Jinping: “We’ve gotten to know each other very well. A great leader. He’s a very talented man. I think he’s a very good man.” On the other hand, he has tweeted angrily about China: “They do nothing for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!” Most Asian leaders do not respond to the president’s tweets and appear to have come to the conclusion that his Twitter diplomacy is short lived and best ignored.

At a deeper level, however, the confusion among regional actors remains centered on the wide gap between the narrative concerning the U.S. role in the region that is advanced by the president and that supported by top White House officials. The president has consistently put forth a view that the United States has been the victim of a series of bad deals agreed to by previous U.S. administrations.

His response is “America first,” which has translated into criticism of allies on issues such as military burden sharing, and efforts to renegotiate economic and security relationships with countries throughout Asia. He withdrew the United States from the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership just one week after assuming office, calling instead for a series of bilateral trade deals, and threatened to withdraw from the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement until South Korea agreed to amend the agreement. Calls for “fair trade” and “burden sharing” underpin this narrative.

At the same time, Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisBiden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs MORE, Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonBiden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet With salami-slicing and swarming tactics, China's aggression continues Lawmakers to roll out legislation reorganizing State cyber office MORE, and Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceSecret Facebook groups of special operations officers include racist comments, QAnon posts: report Oddsmakers say Harris, not Biden, most likely to win 2024 nomination, election Personal security costs for anti-Trump lawmakers spiked post-riot MORE have crisscrossed the region appearing like apostles for President Obama’s Asia rebalance strategy. At the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore in early June, for example, Mattis stated that the U.S. commitment to the region is based “on strategic interests, and on shared values of free people, free markets and a strong and vibrant economic partnership.”

Tillerson offered the most full-throated defense of the rebalance, without ever using the term, in a speech he delivered in advance of his trip to India in late October. He called for a rules-based system, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade. Moreover he called out China for its “provocative actions in the South China Sea” and for subverting the sovereignty of neighboring countries. It is not clear how Tillerson’s emphasis on India will play throughout the rest of Asia, but the essential principles of U.S. engagement in Asia are clear.

The job of the president throughout his time in Asia is to integrate these two narratives. Burden sharing and fair trade, which are the two issues most important to the president, can fit within the broader and more strategic framework articulated by the rest of his administration. But Trump needs to place a priority on the enduring U.S. commitment to the region, reiterating Tillerson’s call for a free and open Indo Pacific and explaining how the United States will lead not only on security, but also on trade and political challenges. If he fails to lay down firm markers concerning this commitment, American allies may simply “unfollow” him on Twitter or more crucially “unsubscribe” their participation in an alliance led by the United States.

Japan is already carving out its own path, pushing ahead on the Trans Pacific Partnership without the United States and conducting negotiations on a free trade agreement with the European Union that will account for 40 percent of global trade. The shredding of this alliance will have broad ramifications for issues on which the United States wants regional cooperation, from drug trafficking to counterterrorism to North Korea. Moreover, China will almost certainly take advantage of the situation using both diplomacy and coercion to advance its position in the region.

Trump’s advisers have done the best job possible to keep the relevant parties at the table while thinking through a deal in which U.S. leadership remains integral to the future of Asia. In the final analysis, however, the United States is represented by the president. This is his roadshow, and he has to sell the deal, first to himself and then to everyone else.

Elizabeth Economy, Ph.D., is a senior fellow and director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the co-author of “By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest Is Changing The World.”