United States Focuses on Asia-Pacific Again

Ahmet Ünal ÇEVİKÖZ
06 November 2017
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U.S. President Donald Trump’s trip to Asia is set to put the Pacific region under the spotlight this week. Trump, beginning with Japan, is due to visit South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Undoubtedly the tension with North Korea, which kept the region on the international agenda for some months this year, will be one of the main items of discussions.

This is the second high-level visit from the U.S. to the Asia-Pacific region this year. In April, Vice-President Mike Pence had visited South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia during which the problem of North Korea was addressed again. Pence, in April, had to cut his visit shorter than the scheduled plan because discussions on Trump’s tax reform was a priority agenda item back at home. This time, Trump himself does not seem to be affected by domestic political concerns and continues his trip in spite of the fact that a new mass killing has taken place in a church in Texas. Trump’s rating, meanwhile, has been the lowest in the country when compared to the same period of the previous presidents in office.

Although international politics seems to focus on problems such as North Korea’s ambitious nuclear program and intercontinental ballistic missile plans, the state of the world economy is increasingly becoming a deeper concern for world leaders. Countries in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly China and Japan, have been defending global free trade and invested a lot of expectations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) agreement, a deal from which the U.S. was withdrawn by Trump as soon as he took office. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first to criticize Trump’s decision. China, meanwhile, has become an ardent supporter of global free trade, a new phenomenon defined by Chinese President Xi Jinping as “socialism with Chinese character.”

During his visit, Trump will discuss economic issues, because three of the countries he will visit, namely Japan, South Korea and China, are members of G-20. Pence’s visit had covered two others in the same group: Australia and Indonesia.

Trump does not consider the U.S. trade relationship with Japan and China as fair and open. This has been a major argument for him to withdraw from TTP. He did the same with the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union, too. His counterparts, however, both in Japan and China, as well as in Europe, disagree with him. Trump has insisted on renegotiating the terms of the trading with all his counterparts. In Europe, his arguments do not echo well. In Asia-Pacific, the response will not be much different either.

As North Korea and trade appear to be the two important topics for discussion during the U.S. president’s trip to the Asia-Pacific, defense cooperation becomes an important area for the development of joint projects. This is why Trump has promoted the idea of Japan’s defense of its territory against possible aggression emanating from North Korea by increased cooperation in defense with the U.S. The fact that a North Korean missile passed over Japan in the summer this year has been brought forward by Trump as a strong justification for the country to “purchase a lot of military equipment from the U.S.” Abe, in return, confirmed that Japan was already purchasing a lot of military equipment from the U.S.

It should be kept in mind that Japan’s constitution, ratified after the Second World War, prevents the country from maintaining significant military power, except self-defense forces. Trump has been pushing an enhanced missile defense system for South Korea too, to defend itself against possible North Korean aggression.

Trump may justify his arguments to sell more military equipment by increased danger emanating from North Korea. He may also see it from the perspective of increased trade opportunities with the countries of the region. Yet, it is also true that such developments will become an inspiration for a further race for armaments and will put peace more at risk, not only regionally but also globally. Sustainability of global free trade would be beneficial for the whole international community as long as it develops in a peaceful environment. Problems with North Korea should be resolved through diplomacy, not through a new arms race.

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