WASHINGTON — President Trump heads to Asia in early November for his second major foreign trip, an ambitious sprint through Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines for global summits and one-on-one meetings largely defined by the North Korean standoff.
China expert Dennis Wilder, who served as President George W. Bush’s senior director for East Asian affairs, set the stage for Trump’s voyage in an interview with Yahoo News on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel 124. Wilder explained that domestic politics in Beijing will affect the visit and detailed what the president should avoid doing while in the region.
“Face, to East Asians, is very, very important,” Wilder said Wednesday. “And so one of the things the president has to be careful of is not canceling meetings, or events, that make it obvious that for some reason he didn’t think that event was worth going to. If it’s on the schedule, he needs to do it.”
Trump, who has taken some criticism for delegating some foreign policy roles to his daughter Ivanka, “has to be careful of doing anything like that” while in Asia, Wilder said. “He needs to show that he’s interested in these things. And that, frankly, can be difficult — some of these events aren’t that exciting.” Back when Bush attended some of the same annual summits that Trump will go to next month, “we used to send him in ball scores to keep his mind occupied” during particularly tedious stretches, Wilder recalled.
“The other thing the president has to be careful of is what he tweets. You cannot, in East Asia, while you’re a guest in these countries, do anything that looks like criticism of those leaders,” the expert added.
In China, Trump will meet again with President Xi Jinping, who has steadily consolidated power at home over the past few years while Beijing’s assertive, even belligerent, actions abroad have increasingly worried its neighbors.
It’s striking “how confident [Xi] is sounding about his own position and the position of China,” with the “void left by the United States” by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific trade deal, Wilder said. Xi has emphasized that “China is moving closer to center stage in the world,” he noted.
“This is about China’s reemergence as a world [power] and great power. And Xi Jinping feels this very personally,” Wilder said. “He wants the United States to recognize China as more of an equal in the world these days. … It’ll be interesting to see how President Trump reacts to, sort of, this more confident, more ambitious China.”
Amid questions about whether Trump will visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, Wilder said that the president’s typically blunt talk might unsettle his hosts.
“There would have to be concerns in South Korea that sometimes the president, when he makes off-the-cuff remarks, can be a little spicy,” Wilder said, pointing to Trump mocking North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man.” (On Twitter, Trump has expanded the moniker to “Little Rocket Man.”)
“I think there would be concerns on the part of some that, if he were to make those kinds of remarks at the DMZ, it might well provoke the North Korean leader in ways that we haven’t seen so far,” Wilder said.
One interesting dynamic that may shape Trump’s trip is Washington’s efforts to enlist India as China’s influence grows, Wilder said. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday that the administration hopes to “dramatically deepen” cooperation with New Delhi.
India had been “ambivalent” about “moving too close” to democratic U.S. allies in Asia, Wilder said. “The Indians obviously have to be a little bit careful about this, because they don’t want to look like they’re joining a containment policy against the Chinese,” he said.
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