With U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to Asia all wrapped up (with mixed reviews), the next major Trump administration personage to tour the region will be none other than Vice President Mike Pence. Pence will head east in April with an itinerary spanning South Korea, Japan, Australia, and, in the first high-level visit to Southeast Asia under this administration, Indonesia.
Pence’s trip to the region highlights a trend: After both Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Tillerson chose to make Asia their first destination abroad, Pence continues along this line. As I’d noted last week, despite declamations that the Obama administration’s “pivot” and “rebalance” are definitely over, U.S. interests in Asia haven’t evaporated. There’s continuity, in particular, with sustained attention by this administration toward the threat posed by North Korea, the one flashpoint in Asia that Obama had reportedly told Trump during the transition would necessitate the greatest amount of attention once he entered office.
The major break with continuity, however, comes in the realm of trade and international economic policy. The Trump administration squarely rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership in its first week in office. Instead, the administration has chosen to pursue a bilateral track on trade, with Japan potentially one of the first negotiating partners to see the Trump administration’s deal-making acumen in this area. (Japan, incidentally, strongly supported TPP and successfully ratified the agreement on Obama’s last day in office.)
When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met Trump back in February, I thought one of the more significant and interesting developments was the avenue by which the two leaders decided the trade issue would be best addressed. Namely, instead of carrying forward at the leaders’ level or bumping matters down to a lower level, Abe and Trump announced that Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Pence would be the ones to convene the first “framework for dialogue.”
To that end, while Tillerson left for Asia last week, Hiroshige Seko, Japan’s minister of economy, trade, and industry (METI), was in Washington for a series of meetings to lay the groundwork for trade talks. Sego’s time in Washington also focused on exchanging views with U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross on Japan’s Toshiba Corp’s U.S. nuclear energy affiliate.
Pence’s trip may emerge as the most interesting high-level visit by a Trump administration official to Asia yet. Mattis was largely there on a reassurance tour and Tillerson’s visit was far from a friendly meet-and-greet, given the urgency of the North Korean crisis on his agenda. Pence’s diversified destinations, combined with substantive talks in Japan on economic matters, leave his trip the next one to watch in the Trump administration’s Asia approach.