Photo: U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and South Korea's President Moon Jae-in attend a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul Tuesday, November 7, 2017. Credit: Kim Hong-ji/Pool Photo - Photo: 2017

Trump’s Asian Visit Exposes U.S.-Asia Perception Gap

By Kalinga Seneviratne

BANGKOK (IDN) – It is often said that since the end of the World War II, the United States has been the pre-eminent power in the Asia-Pacific region, providing the stability needed for the economic boom of the past 70 years.

This perception is changing, however, and has intensified especially after U.S. President Donald Trump’s infamous speech at the United Nations in September where he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, effectively killing 25 million people and committing the worse war crime in history.

The large “No Trump, No War” demonstrations that took place across South Korea during President Trump’s visit to Seoul earlier in November reflected the South Korean peoples’ different perception to that of United States about the North Korean nuclear threat.

The progressive groups that organised the protests against Trump form the traditional support base of South Korean President Moon Ja-in. Seoul’s Metropolitan Agency had rejected many applications for rallies during Trump’s visit to the South Korean capital which would have sent a clear message to the world that the South Korean people and the U.S. administration have different perceptions on the North Korean nuclear threat.

While Trump’s choice of words and rhetoric have contributed to fears in the peninsula that he is trying to create a war which most Koreans do not want, the protest groups also see him as a salesman trying to sell arms to South Korea (to close the trade deficit between the two allies) which they do not need. The protestors want the United States and South Korea to stop their provocative joint military exercises and bring North Korea to the negotiating table.

During Trump’s visit the two leaders made symbolic public gestures (of a strong alliance) such as Moon visiting a U.S. military base on Korean soil and having lunch with Trump there in front of TV cameras, while Trump himself was unusually restrained in his rhetoric in a speech to the Korean parliament, the first by a U.S. president in 24 years.

The usually pro-U.S. Korean Herald was relieved that there was no public discord shown by the two leaders over North Korean nuclear and missile tests, as Moon is known to favour dialogue to resolve the dispute and he is opposed to having U.S. THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) missiles on Korean soil.

“Both leaders reaffirmed solid cooperation between their countries over North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations,” the newspaper noted in an editorial, adding, “whether the two leaders discussed military options or not was unknown, but the options seem to be sidelined for now.”

Even the Herald noted – perhaps reflecting the public mood – that “the most effective realistic response to North Korean threats is the strongest pressure and sanctions rather than military might which may cause calamity on the Korean Peninsula.”

In an interview with Singapore’s Channel NewsAsia on the eve of the Trump visit, Moon said that South Korea’s relationship with China “has become more important not only in terms of economic cooperation, but also for strategic cooperation for the peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. That is why I am pursuing a balanced diplomacy with the U.S. as well as China.”

The key point of his balanced diplomacy approach lies in securing China’s cooperation on opening up negotiations with North Korea while maintaining the alliance with the United States. It gained momentum from the Seoul-Beijing agreement in October to mend their ties over the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system.

Interestingly, almost immediately after Trump’s visit to Korea, China dispatched a senior official to Pyongyang, presumably to discuss reopening dialogue on the nuclear issue.

Trump’s major policy initiative in Asia announced in Tokyo along with ally Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe redefining President Obama’s “U.S. Pivot to Asia” with the “Indo-Pacific Alliance” and the launch of a “Quad” defence arrangement with Australia and India has attracted sceptics in the region – even in those two countries.

China immediately labelled the initiative an attempt to form an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) that will infuse distrust among neighbours in the region. China’s response was to sign a formal agreement with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) at their 50th anniversary summit in November in Manila to begin negotiations on a development cooperation agreement in the disputed South China Sea area. Former staunch US ally Philippines has been instrumental in getting China to the negotiation table.

Professor Hugh White of the Strategic Studies Department of the Australian National University argues that the ‘Quad’ idea is a classic example of an empty gesture masquerading as a policy. “The four countries may have been willing to agree that they would rather China did not dominate the region,” he noted in an opinion piece in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, raising the question about what exactly they are willing to do to stop it.

“Does anyone imagine that India is really willing to sacrifice its relationship with China to support Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, or that Japan would endanger its interests with the Chinese to support India in its interminable border disputes with China? Or that Australia would jeopardise trade with China for either of them, or even to support America?” it asked, pointing out that “that is the reality of China’s power today.”

Writing in the SCMP, Mohan Guruswamy, chairman of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in New Delhi, also scorned the military alliance idea. “Indians chafe at the suggestion that China’s growing power is why the U.S. sees value in ties with India. India has a certain sense of self-esteem that the Americans misunderstand entirely,” he argued. “India doesn’t want its relationship to depend on the intensity of the U.S.’ competition with China.”

Guruswamy went on to note that “now that India is a middle-income country with the world’s third-largest GDP – about 9.7 trillion dollars by purchasing power parity – India cannot see any reason to be the U.S.’, or for that matter, anybody’s, junior partner against a third power … India has a mostly unmarked 3,488 km-long border with China. Both countries have kept this border peaceful and not a single shot has been fired at each other since 1967.”

Thus, he added, “India has no illusions about who will bear the burden and pay the price if it joins in any containment agreement, as espoused by the Americans and Japanese. The heart of India’s foreign and security policy is strategic autonomy. This simply means it will act in its own perceived interests and fight its own battles.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 21 November 2017]

Photo: U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in attend a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul Tuesday, November 7, 2017. Credit: Kim Hong-ji/Pool Photo

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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