WASHINGTON -- With Donald Trump embarking Nov. 5 on his first Asia trip as U.S. president, countries there are closely watching for further insights into his views on North Korea, trade policy and the region's importance.
"We have to solve the North Korea problem," Trump said Wednesday in a Fox Business Network interview. "It's a very big problem." This suggests that the country will be a major topic of discussion when he visits Japan, South Korea and China. Vietnam and the Philippines will round out the tour.
Trump could meet with relatives of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and '80s. He is also scheduled to speak to South Korea's National Assembly about U.S. policy on the North.
China, with its great economic sway over Pyongyang, will be key to any success on the issue. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed North Korea as part of their phone call Wednesday. The U.S. president will call for even greater pressure when meeting with Xi in person next month, according to a high-ranking American official.
North Korea has carried out no military provocations since a missile test in mid-September. But Japan, the U.S. and South Korea are keeping their eyes peeled in case it makes a move during Trump's Asia tour. A senior North Korean official said the country has "always brought its words into action," referring to a threat last month to possibly test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean, CNN reported Wednesday.
Beijing's moves in the South China Sea will likely emerge as a key topic during Trump's stop in China, as well as at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit and related meetings he will attend in the Philippines. The administration has so far carried out four freedom-of-navigation operations -- sail-bys near artificial islands built in the waters by China. Trump seems to be taking a tougher stance on security than predecessor Barack Obama.
But unlike Obama, Trump is strongly urging Asian countries to address trade imbalances with the U.S. He could further comment during his trip on the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which the two countries agreed to renegotiate, as well as on American trade policy with China and Japan.
At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, Trump is expected to deliver a speech outlining his full Asia policy for the first time. Southeast Asian nations and others facing increased pressure from China have begun to heed U.S. calls on trade imbalances. Singapore Airlines, for example, has placed a $13.8 billion order with Boeing.
Obama had placed a greater economic and diplomatic focus on the region through his "pivot to Asia." But Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, a core component of his predecessor's policy. John Hamre, president of the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies, has criticized the move and inconsistencies in Trump's Asia strategy.
Trump will not attend the East Asia Summit in the Philippines following the ASEAN-related meeting, reportedly because of scheduling concerns. Obama had also skipped key Asian summits back in October 2013 to attend to pressing matters back in the U.S. But this raised doubts about his commitment to the Asia pivot, resulting in criticism abroad and at home.