21 April 2019
US President Donald Trump (left) is welcomed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on the first leg of his Asian tour. Photo: Bloomberg
US President Donald Trump (left) is welcomed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on the first leg of his Asian tour. Photo: Bloomberg

Can the beleaguered Trump carry the day during his Asia trip?

On Sunday, United States President Donald Trump arrived in Japan on the first leg of his much anticipated Asian tour.

During his visit to the Yokota air base, Trump warned that the US is ready to defend itself and its allies, and that “no one, no dictator, no regime, and no nation should underestimate, ever, American resolve”.

Although Trump did not mention any names when he addressed the troops, everybody knew he was referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when he said “dictator”.

And it goes without saying that the North Korean nuclear crisis is on top of Trump’s agenda during his ongoing Asian tour. In fact, his itinerary speaks volumes about what tactics he is going to use in dealing with the issue: he chose to go to Japan and South Korea first to consolidate the strategic alliance among Washington, Tokyo and Seoul.

On the third leg of his Asian tour, Trump will visit Beijing and try to seek common ground with President Xi Jinping over how to respond to North Korea’s escalating nuclear aggression, thereby forming a united front against Pyongyang.

In the face of the mounting threat posed by the increasingly defiant Kim regime, there is little option left on the table for Trump apart from economic sanctions and military action.

As far as imposing economic sanctions is concerned, there is widespread doubt in the international community over whether it is going to work, as Pyongyang so far has shown no sign of backing down even amid the ongoing full-scale ban on its coal exports and oil imports, let alone giving up its nuclear weapons.

The stalemate on the Korean peninsula begs the question: Will President Trump just say to himself “enough is enough” and then order his troops to take out the “Rocket Man” anytime soon?

Even though the US does seem to have the military capabilities to do so, as it has already deployed a substantial number of state-of-the-art F-35A and F-35B stealth fighters to Japan, it remains questionable as to whether Japan would agree to any massive and decisive military operation against North Korea.

In particular, it appears Tokyo is unlikely to endorse any military strike against Pyongyang, for fear that it might provoke a fierce retaliation from the Kim regime of which Japan is very likely to bear the brunt.

And the fact that the Japanese government did not intercept and shoot down North Korean ballistic missiles that flew over it back in August and September may indeed serve as an indication that Tokyo could have serious reservations about further provoking Pyongyang.

According to Kyodo News, President Trump is said to have told Southeast Asian leaders that he could not understand why “a country of samurai warriors” did not shoot down the North Korean ballistic missiles.

Apart from the attitude of its East Asian allies, Washington, undoubtedly, must also take into account Beijing’s stance when it comes to resolving the North Korea issue. By no means can the US bypass China and go it alone on North Korea.

As such, the meeting between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping this week will be the focus of international attention. Everybody is looking forward to some sort of an agreement between the two over North Korea.

The problem is, while President Xi is at the height of his political power following the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Trump is engulfed by political scandals at home, particularly the ongoing Russia-gate saga which many believe might snowball into a full-blown political crisis like the Watergate scandal and eventually derail his presidency.

Before he set out for Asia, Trump had responded to a journalist’s question about President Xi’s further consolidation of power after the party congress by saying “Excuse me, so am I”, and denying being at a disadvantage.

The truth is that huge political uncertainties are hanging over the beleaguered Trump and his administration. These have inevitably called into question whether he would be able to negotiate with President Xi in a position of strength and hammer out a deal over Pyongyang that is in the best interests of the US.

Simply put, the US is unlikely to resort to military action against North Korea as long as Beijing says “no”.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 6

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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