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A trip to Asia may force Trump to get real about North Korea

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President Trump will embark next week on a landmark 12-day swing through Asia, with planned stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. As a presidential candidate, Trump called into question his country's long-standing commitments in the region and demonized China as a nation somehow defrauding the global economy. While he has toned down some of his campaign bluster on Asian affairs, particularly his anti-Chinese broadsides, there is still plenty of tension to defuse.

Trump has gone out of his way to scupper the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a free-trade deal with a host of countries in the Asia-Pacific region, and lobbed rhetorical missiles at North Korea that have raised the specter of war on the peninsula. His bellicosity has alarmed partners in the region and even, at times, undermined his own lieutenants.

“The fear of the region on Jan. 20 was Trump would disengage from Asia,” said Michael Auslin, an expert on East Asia and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, during a recent panel at the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank. Now, Auslin suggests, the worry is really about an administration in policy “disarray.”

Next month's trip thus presents a significant opportunity for Trump to clear up his messaging, explain his administration's Asian agenda and assure long-standing allies he has their back, particularly in the face of an ever-assertive China.

“We need a successful trip to Asia,” said Harry Kazianis, the Center for the National Interest's director of defense studies, at the panel. “The president needs to go to Asia and really ensure despite leaving TPP that we are really behind our allies.”

It's far from clear Trump will actually do that. As my colleague Josh Rogin reported Tuesday, the president is expected to skip the East Asia Summit in mid-November; aides fear extending the trip that long may make Trump “cranky” and prompt “unpredictable or undiplomatic behavior.” The event was scheduled when it was in part to enable Trump's participation.

“It is a big deal. The Obama administration made a point of investing in these regional institutions in order to demonstrate we are an Asia Pacific power, a resident power in the region. This will only raise more questions about American credibility,” said Derek Mitchell, a former U.S. ambassador to Burma, to Rogin. “Multilateralism in Asia is often just about showing up, but even that appears to be hard for him.”

Trump and some of his in-house ideologues specifically decry the need to maintain America's multilateral commitments. Their focus will be on bilateral meetings with the leaders of the countries he visits. He is slated to deliver a speech at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam that will “reaffirm the U.S. commitment to a free and open Asia Pacific,” an administration official told my colleague David Nakamura.

Hovering in the background will be a host of complex geopolitical questions: How tough a line will Trump take on Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea? To what extent can Trump translate his personal bonhomie with Chinese President Xi Jinping into political results? How will he get along with his two most important East Asian allies: A liberal, dovish president in Seoul and an increasingly hawkish prime minister in Tokyo?

The real test, though, will be how Trump reckons with North Korea. The pariah state's nuclear threat will loom over most of Trump's deliberations with Asian leaders. The president has repeatedly rattled his saber at Pyongyang, promising “fire and fury” and addressing North Korean despot Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man.” Earlier this month, Trump contradicted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, then on a visit to Beijing, by suggesting negotiations with North Korea “aren't worthwhile at all.”

Any military option — whether targeted strikes on North Korean military facilities, a broader intervention or even an attempt on Kim's life — would, as Kazianis put it, “open the ultimate Pandora's box.” Analysts fear retaliation by North Korea would potentially lead to millions of deaths in the region, not to mention the prospect of an intercontinental ballistic missile launch aimed at American territory, even if it prefigured the regime's downfall.

The Trump administration certainly understands this, but you wouldn't get that impression from Trump's own rhetoric. “Some of the chaos in Washington obviously does not lend itself to successful foreign policy strategies or outcomes,” Kazianis said.

Most countries in the region believe the only solution lies in bringing North Korea to the table, probably through diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions, a strategy similar to the Obama-era doctrine of “strategic patience.” Yet even as the Trump White House has blasted that approach, it's remarkably similar to the policies Trump has in fact pursued.

Ironically, Auslin notes, for all of Trump's contempt for his predecessor, his policy regarding North Korea seems to be an “Obama plus” strategy: Posturing with shows of force while pushing for sanctions and calling for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Given Pyongyang's growing stockpile of nuclear weapons, Auslin argues, “I think strategic patience is likely the best choice.”

This is not a situation for recklessness. The channels that existed even at the height of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States to help mitigate against a calamitous mistake aren't there between Washington and Pyongyang.

“What I think has changed the most,” Auslin said, “is not the threat of war, but the threat of accident.” Auslin suggests the United States needs to work with allies and countries like China and Russia to answer what may seem a “crazy” question: “How do we help the North Koreans maintain a safe and secure nuclear arsenal?”

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