Analysts: Trump's Asia trip left major questions unanswered

By Elizabeth Shim  |  Nov. 21, 2017 at 1:04 AM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 21 (UPI) -- U.S. President Donald Trump's visit to Asia may have left regional allies puzzled because of his approach to security relationships, a former Obama administration official said Monday.

Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said at the Japan Society on Monday Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's views on security may have drawn sharp contrasts, even as Abe has made extra efforts to guide Trump to closer communication.

"The defense and security agenda of Prime Minister Abe goes well beyond buying American equipment," Russel said, referring to the transactional nature of some of Trump's statements on weapons purchases from allies like Japan.

"There may have been something of a disparity in messaging there, because we heard again and again from President Trump discussion of the security relationship in terms of seller and purchaser," the former diplomat said.

"That's quite different than the traditional characterization of the security alliance."

U.S.-Japan relations are working within new dynamics that could present challenges, were it not for threats from the Kim Jong Un regime, Russel said.

"It makes you wonder, without the unifying force of a direct threat from North Korea, where would the alliance be?"

Russel, who also served as a White House aide during the Obama administration, said the U.S.-Japan relationship has not suffered setbacks because Abe has helped Trump, guiding the U.S. president to "kind of wrap his arms around the North Korean problem, regional dynamics and strategy."

"The question though is, what would happen if the situation grew more dire? What would happen if the U.S. were to take unilateral preemptive or preventative measures?" Russel said.

The former State Department official, who witnessed firsthand the Obama administration's policy of a "Pivot to Asia," and Obama's envisioning of the United States as a Pacific power, said it is not hard to imagine Japan as a primary North Korea target.

Japan would be concerned if the United States took action without consultation, he said.

Other steps on North Korea could also catch Japan off guard.

"If the U.S. administration for some reason takes North Korea's bait and grabs one of these deeply flawed offers, whether it's the Chinese freeze-for-freeze, or the next peace initiative that will come out of Pyongyang, where does that leave Japan?" Russel said. "That carries with it strategic concerns."

Most of the diplomatic effort with North Korea is carried out in Beijing.

Ahead of his trip to Asia and summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump had raised concerns with his message of congratulations to Xi for his consolidation of power following the 19th Communist Party Congress in October.

Kent Calder, director of Asia Programs at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington, D.C., said the China portion of Trump's trip should be given a grade of "incomplete," despite the administration's claim the summit yielded significant progress on trade, including the signing of major cooperation agreements, or "over $250 billion U.S. dollars of commercial deals and two-way investment agreements."

Calder, who once served as special advisor to the U.S. ambassador to Japan, described the discussions of contracts as "ambiguous."

They were also addressed "without really presenting the trade issues in a clearer, starker way," while placing too much trust in Xi, the analyst said.

Russel said he is concerned of perceptions among U.S. allies that Trump was "played" by Xi, and by the "grandeur of the pageantry and flattery" that came with the state visit to China.

The former diplomat said these were the issues raised in editorials in Japanese newspapers.

"The fact that this is a post-mortem perception coming from very pro-American sources, is concerning," Russel said.

The former State Department official also said the Trump administration's new Indo-Pacific strategy in Asia needs to be further elaborated and not as a policy that works against China.

Russel said Trump needs to explain how the Indo-Pacific strategy squares against a policy of "America First."

"It works more at the level of geopolitical strategy, than it does in terms of economic reality," Russel said.

"There need to be initiatives."

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