Pence in Translation: the Vice President Takes a Tour of Asia

What does this mean for US/Asia relations under Trump?

By Declan Murphy
Features and List Co-Editor

This week, Vice President Mike Pence began a 10-day tour of Asia to meet with foreign leaders and more precisely define President Trump’s foreign policy with regards to Asia. Of course, as with any effort from this administration, there has been confusion, gaffes, and strategic errors. This trip is more noteworthy for elucidating Trump’s politics in the Asia-Pacific, including his attitudes towards North Korea, and how he prioritizes different relationships.

This is a time of heightened tension in Asia. Some of this is part of long-term complications that predate Trump. US-China relations are both critical to international security and fraught with tensions. China and the US have, historically, disagreed on a number of issues, as evidenced by many UN Security Council votes on which China either abstained or vetoed. On top of existing tensions, Trump had already taken an aggressive stance towards China on the campaign trail. In the transition period, Trump made a controversial call to Taiwan and promised to label China a “currency manipulator” during his first 100 days, (thankfully, he has not followed through on that—yet.) He also shut down the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have strengthened the US presence in Asia.

Beyond that, the threat of a nuclear North Korea looms large. Recent events have heightened tensions and point to an increased risk. In March, North Korea fired missiles that fell over the Sea of Japan, demonstrating an increased willingness by Kim Jong-Un’s government to antagonize enemies in Asia. This is particularly concerning given Japan’s ties to the US. This past Sunday, North Korea attempted another missile launch. In a subsequent UN Security Council vote, Russia vetoed a proposed condemnation of the launch, further complicating efforts in the international community to restrain the increasingly aggressive Kim Jong-Un regime.

While the most publicized aspect of the trip is Pence’s visit to South Korea, Pence will also visit Japan, Indonesia, and China. It makes sense that the media wants to keep the focus on North Korea. It is arguably the biggest security threat in the Asia-Pacific region. It is also worth noting how the administration is greeted in China and Japan, the latter of which has historically been a strong US ally but whose support may be wavering.

Beginning his tour in South Korea reflects the new, more aggressive approach to foreign policy. The Trump administration has shown an increased willingness to show force to intimidate North Korea. Speaking in the demilitarized zone (DMZ), Pence said that the Trump administration would change tactics from those of the Obama administration, which Pence characterized as “the failed policy of strategic patience”.  This likely refers to Obama’s tactics of sanctions, acting through the UN to economically target North Korea.

Pence spoke at length about using North Korea’s Asian neighbors to pressure Kim Jong-Un to surrender its nuclear weapons program and “join the family of nations” . He cited China specifically, but implicitly such a statement suggests cooperation with Japan and South Korea as well. In a separate speech on the USS Ronald Reagan, Pence affirmed that the US would not negotiate with the North Korean government, though he did express hopes that this could be resolved peacefully.

Then came the gaffes. The error was not from Pence himself, but rather the Commander-in-Chief, whose incendiary comments back home caused trouble for Pence. Trump claimed that he was sending an “armada” to North Korea in order to demonstrate the US’s opposition to North Korean aggression. However, the ships Trump was referring to were, in fact, sailing away from North Korea to a training exercise in the Indian Ocean. Pence tried to cover, saying that Trump merely wanted to imply the US’s readiness to marshal such a force. However, the fact remains that Trump spoke in error, and Pence was left to (yet again) defend his actions.

After South Korea, Pence visited Japan to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan is particularly concerned about the failure of the TPP. Pence’s visit was aimed at creating trade agreements to improve the bilateral relationship, and both nations publicly proclaimed the strength of the relationship. But Japan is pursuing alternatives to the TPP which will not involve the US, in an effort to check the growing economic strength of its rival China. Pence also reaffirmed the US’s commitment to stand against North Korean aggression, which is especially salient given the recent attempted missile launches against Japan.

Pence visited Jakarta, Indonesia on Thursday, where trade was the main agenda item. Pence met with President Joko Widodo to discuss trade. Pence and Widodo reached agreements related to energy totaling $8 billion, according to Indonesia’s foreign minister.  It is worth noting that Trump has economic interests in Indonesia, including proposed resorts in Jakarta and Bali. Further, one of Trump’s local business contacts Hary Tanoesoedibjo may run for the Indonesian Presidency in 2020.  The Trump administration, therefore, has questionable conflicts of interest in Indonesia.

Pence’s trip will also include a visit to Australia, which (like Japan) was disappointed by the failure of the TPP and is looking into alternatives.

So what are the major takeaways from this trip? Well, first and foremost, conflict is undoubtedly brewing in Asia. The Trump administration’s hardline stance against North Korea is potentially dangerous and unstable but demonstrates a commitment that is certainly a new direction in US foreign policy. Trump is increasingly aggressive towards North Korea in a way that we haven’t seen before. Whether or not he will succeed in using pressure to create a peaceful solution, or will instead cause a violent outbreak of war, remains to be seen. For now, the situation with North Korea is increasingly unstable.

Despite all that’s happening in the Middle East, we must not forget that some of the US’s most important allies—and its most unstable enemies—are in Asia. We cannot afford to overlook Asia. The Trump administration has shown, at the least, a high attentiveness to these issues. However, their responses have been bold and unpredictable, that may provoke further aggression. An unstable Asia means an unstable world; quite frankly, I’m just not sure that Trump- or Pence- is up to the challenge.

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