At the end of this week our president is to set off on an 11–day sweep through Asia—five nations plus two regional forums, one each in Hanoi and Manila. Wow. This is a lot of miles, a lot of summitry, a lot of speechifying, and a lot of Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino dinners. Let us prepare to watch. There will be something important to learn from this gaudy itinerary—not about Asia or Asians, but about ourselves, our leadership, and the cliques that devise and execute our trans–Pacific policies.
Am I the only one reminded of the famous “imperial cruise” TR commissioned in 1905? That summer our self-dramatizing empire builder, America’s first, loaded the SS Manchuria with 80–odd notables, including his daughter Alice, and sent them on a journey through Asia to tell the world that the Pacific was going to be an American lake. Grand is as grand does, I gather we are supposed to think as Trump proceeds through the western Pacific more or less in the Manchuria’s wake.
I am for calling this escapade a late-imperial cruise. It is yesterday meets tomorrow, and how much can yesterday have to say to a day it cannot see?
Trump’s planners have one thing right as they send their boss on the longest turn through Asia an American president has ever made. Relations across the Pacific are and will remain Washington’s single greatest foreign-policy challenge for a lot of this century. By relations across the Pacific, I mean relations with China. They now inform every one of Washington’s other trans–Pacific ties. And relations with China are changing. This is Washington’s big problem. China is changing more or less everything in the Pacific, and Washington does not want it to.
At the moment Asia seems to dance like a dervish. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s premier and a blueblood nationalist, just won a decisive victory in snap elections and now promises to proceed with plans to free Japan from the strictures written into the “peace constitution,” 70 years old this year. After Tokyo comes Seoul, where the just-elected Moon Jae-in has been parrying the United States on the North Korea question, at least by my reckoning, while talking to the Russians and Chinese about what Washington refuses to talk about—serious, comprehensive, multi-sided solutions to the crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
Trump moves onto Beijing a couple of weeks after Xi Jinping’s strikingly confident speech at the Communist Party Congress earlier this month. One is certain the Trump White House heard the Chinese leader’s remarks, but nearly as certain the president and his people did not listen to them. In all likelihood, Xi will merely have to repeat what he has said countless times already to no evident result. No, we cannot solve the Korea crisis for you. We will do what we can, but that is only so much, and we are dead against another of your American “regime changes.” No, we have no intention of altering course in the South China Sea. Yes, we are an emerging power, and by the middle of this century we will be a great power.