The Trump administration in its first 100 days has reflected the global reach of its alliance network in Northeast Asia (primarily Japan and South Korea) and beyond. The US has also indicated its obligations to its network of allies and friends by focusing on mitigating or resolving the crisis in North Korea sparked off by missile and nuclear warheads tests. The US is also working with the other great powers in Northeast Asia like China in trying to lower temperatures and contributing to the resolution of the standoff over nuclear tests.
US diplomacy with China has gotten off to a good start. China is a responsible major power in the region and the world. The US praised China’s role in dissuading Pyongyang from testing its nukes. China is persuading all stakeholders to resist more provocation. It is also offering North Korea protection in exchange for giving up its nuclear program. The ultimate goal is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Sino-US cooperation over the North Korean crisis bears well for the region as phone call diplomacy between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping helped to increase communication between the two major powers in East Asia. By enjoying good conduits of communication between the two top leaderships, President Trump has also been able to accurately transmit the messages along to US allies when coordinating closely with Tokyo and Seoul on regional affairs.
Despite handling a hot crisis in Northeast Asia, the US has not withdrawn its attention from Southeast Asia as the region remains strategic for US interests, including its Sea Lanes of Communication, and it has close allies in the region like the Philippines and Thailand. The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike force passed through the Sunda Straits and also conducted exercises with Australia before leaving for the Korean Peninsula, demonstrating that the US is equally focused on Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia also wants to maintain its friendship with China as it is a major power in the region. Southeast Asian countries are engaged with China through the Belt and Road Initiative as well as Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank funding. China’s infrastructure connectivity investment in the region has also proven to be very important and value-added.
At the most recent ASEAN summit in Manila, ASEAN countries under the rotating chairmanship of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte created a constructive atmosphere for discussions with China. Many stakeholders in the South China Sea dispute are keen to promote the Code of Conduct. Their underlying interest is to promote peace in the maritime areas as peaceful conditions in turn promote economic development. Duterte is one of the Southeast Asian presidents who has been most friendly towards Beijing. He is hoping to establish a framework in the region to mitigate conflicts, prevent accidents, and bring about peace. This is a good opportunity for China to work with ASEAN in this area based on careful assessments of their common interests.
At the same time, President Trump has personally invited the Prime Ministers of Singapore and Thailand as well as President Duterte to visit Washington DC. The former two have accepted the invitation and President Duterte is likely to visit as well, after checking with his schedule. This is another achievement for President Trump’s first 100 days in office as he begins a round of personal diplomacy to get to know the ASEAN leaders in person. However, the US President is not the only active US leader making his rounds around East Asia.
Vice President Pence’s personal visits and President Trump’s invitation for ASEAN leaders to visit the White House indicated that the US administration is giving their attention to a very important region of the world.
Vice President Mike Pence is also busy at work. He had earlier visited Seoul to assuage jittery sentiments in Northeast Asia over the North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. During this visit, he stood at the Demilitarized Zone on the South Korea side of the armistice border with his daughter and wife, peered into binoculars, and viewed North Korea with his naked eyes. In return, the North Korean authorities filmed and recorded the encounter from their side of the border. Vice President Pence warned Pyongyang not to test the resolve of the US and its military. With this gesture, he demonstrated the US is giving its highest priority to its traditional allies in the region. Vice President Pence also visited Jakarta, capital of Indonesia — ASEAN’s largest country, a G20 economy, and the world’s largest Muslim country. There, he praised Indonesia’s practices of moderate Islam as well as democracy.
Vice President Mike Pence’s personal visits gelled very well with President Trump’s invitation for ASEAN leaders to visit the White House. All these gestures indicated that the US administration is giving their attention to a very important region of the world — one that is integrating and forming the ASEAN Economic Community (in place since December 2015), and a region that is directly in the center of sensitive areas like the South China sea. ASEAN’s outreach to befriend both the US and China is also a good sign for peace in the region.
Vice President Mike Pence’s show of solidarity and strength with the South Korean allies is complemented with soft diplomacy from President Trump. President Trump mentioned he was willing to meet with North Korean President Kim Jong-Un during his presidential campaign, and he recently reiterated his offer, going in-depth to explain how the young North Korean leader has faced tremendous challenges in ruling North Korea, including dealing with tough personalities in that political regime. President Trump reiterated that he would be very honored to meet the young leader.
This offer of an olive-like branch is another sign of the highly sophisticated American diplomacy under the Trump administration. It is highly versatile and has a degree of strategic ambiguity that leaves space for negotiations and compromises while shoring up US national interests. President Trump was also very careful earlier on when he used Twitter to indicate that the North Korean leader had disrespected the highly-respected leader of China, President Xi, with his missile test. Therefore, while President Trump attempted to reach out to the North Korean leader, he was also careful to highlight China’s exceptional and highly important role in North Korea — Beijing’s only formal ally on paper.