Trump to Asia: Unite on North Korea, but Go It Alone on Trade

 In U.S.

From Tokyo to Beijing, Mr. Trump has played the dealmaker with foreign leaders, flattering them personally even as his administration pushes hard-edge views on economic issues.

But the contradictions also reflect a more fundamental disarray in the presidency’s policy toward Asia. It seems caught between the geopolitical realism of Mr. Trump’s diplomats and the economic nationalism of his political aides.

These competing impulses have left allies and adversaries alike confused about America’s motives and staying power. Over time, several experts said, the balancing act will be impossible to maintain.

Already with China, Mr. Trump has had to soft-pedal his ambitious trade agenda in an uphill effort to persuade President Xi Jinping to do more to press the neighboring North Korean government.

With the smaller nations of Southeast Asia, Mr. Trump may feel less pressure to compromise. His comments in Vietnam lacked the solicitous tone he had used in China and Japan, veering into the defiant populism he used on the campaign trail. Yet his go-it-alone message could drive these countries further into the orbit of China, which has moved at this meeting of Pacific leaders to fill the vacuum left by the United States.

“The region is looking for a robust American presence, not just on security but on trade,” said John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, the South Korean capital. “For Trump to come with an ‘America First’ agenda leaves Asian leaders in the lurch.”


Mr. Trump, right, with other leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Danang, Vietnam, on Saturday.

Pool photo by Jorge Silva

Jeffrey A. Bader, a former China adviser to President Barack Obama, said Mr. Trump’s words would make Asian leaders “feel that the U.S. is less of a factor in the region.”

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