IT IS THE time US President Donald Trump spends in Beijing that will be the most critical part of his more-than-weeklong tour of five Asian countries that he started this weekend.
To the other four countries on his itinerary — Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines — he will offer some measure of assurance that the United States’ traditional security guarantees to the region can be squared with his ‘America First’ economic nationalism.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP), a cornerstone of his predecessor Barack Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’, has been deeply felt with some concern across the region. Nowhere less so than in Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had invested considerable political capital in TPP and must now still assume the role of the principal regional counterweight to China.
The Trump administration is increasingly referring to the region as the Indo-Pacific, not Asia-Pacific, to diminish the Asia part, which to most Americans implies Chinese. The two regions are not the same to a geologist or marine biologist, but the co-option of the term by geopolitical strategists is blurring the distinction. However, it will take more than rebranding to assuage Asian allies’ anxieties.
In Beijing, the mood will be very different. Trump will be pampered and feted at the court of ‘the King of China’, to use Trump’s phrase. The US businessmen accompanying the US president will sign multi-billion dollar sales deals that will help to diminish China’s trade surplus with the United States, but in designated sectors, notably energy, of Beijing’s not the free-market’s choosing.
Discussions about North Korea have potential to be contentious, but Trump may well find himself an uncharacteristically restrained guest as Xi holds to China’s ‘dual approach’ line and stresses the need to get all parties back to the negotiating table.
Most of all Beijing will project the visit of a meeting of two superpowers, who will jointly “map out a blueprint for the development of bilateral ties in a new era”, as Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zequang puts it. China-America First, perhaps, but every photo opportunity will be carefully used to convey which of the two leaders is the great draftsman.
It is a formula that worked well for China when Xi visited Washington in January. On these trips, the optics are as, if not more important than the outcomes.
As soon as Trump has departed Beijing, Xi will head to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang in Vietnam. Trump, too, will be there, and the allies and adversaries on both sides will make their judgements about which of the two superpowers will figure most prominently in their lives.