TOKYO -- During his roughly weeklong tour of South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia in late April, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stressed to his hosts that the U.S. was not shifting its strategy in the Asia-Pacific region under its new president, even if Donald Trump had decided to pull the country out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.
In Australia, a key U.S. security ally, he tried to warm up a bilateral relationship that has grown frostier since Trump took office in January. In Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, he reached out to the Muslim community, including making a highly symbolic visit to a mosque.
The new U.S. administration has appeared less interested in the Asia-Pacific region than the Obama administration. But the team in Washington appears to have concluded that if it wants to more effectively deal with North Korea, which has been furthering its nuclear and missile ambitions, and China, Pyongyang's biggest supporter, it needs to become more engaged with the region and rebuild its relationships with its allies there.
Pence told a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on April 22 that the U.S. would honor a controversial refugee deal with Australia. Under the arrangement, which former U.S. President Barack Obama and Turnbull approved late last year, the U.S. will resettle up to 1,250 asylum seekers held in offshore processing camps on South Pacific islands in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. In return, Australia will resettle refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
That "dumb" deal
In January this year, Trump and Turnbull discussed the deal over the phone, but the U.S. leader cut the call short, describing the agreement as "dumb." Addressing his boss's controversial comment, Pence told a news conference, the U.S. "has made it clear we'll honor the agreement, [but] it doesn't mean we admire the agreement."
Pence kicked off his meeting with Turnbull by saying that Trump sent his greetings and dispatched him to Australia as soon as possible to reaffirm the strong, historic alliance between the two nations. Pence and Turnbull also used the opportunity to agree to forging a stronger trade partnership.
Before stopping in Australia, Pence visited Indonesia, where he met with President Joko Widodo in Jakarta on April 20. At a news conference after their talks, Pence said, "One of the greatest threats we face is the rise and spread of terrorism." Notably, he did not use the words "radical Islam." The vice president strived to strike a conciliatory note, saying, "As the largest majority-Muslim country, Indonesia's tradition of moderate Islam, frankly, is an inspiration to the world."
There was a strong element of damage control in Pence's remarks. Trump has on numerous occasions lashed out at "radical Islamic terrorism," giving the impression that Islam and terrorism are linked. He also signed an executive order to block the entry to the U.S. of citizens of some countries in the Middle East and Africa with large Muslim populations.
Amid all of this, anti-U.S. protests have been breaking out among Muslim communities in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, where most of the 260 million people are Muslims, some have shown sympathy with the Islamic State militant group, and a certain number of its citizens have gone to Syria to fight with IS. Team Trump apparently concluded that it needed to send an official of Pence's caliber to Indonesia to defuse anti-U.S. sentiment among Muslims in Southeast Asia.
Around the time that Pence was making his rounds in Asia, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was visiting countries in the Middle East and Africa with large Muslim populations.
After his meeting with Widodo, Pence went on a tour of Jakarta's famous Istiqlal Mosque. He posed for photos in the mosque's massive courtyard and walked through the five-story prayer hall.
Later that day, the vice president went to the headquarters of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in Jakarta. He announced there that Trump would attend three Asian summits in November: the U.S.-ASEAN summit and the East Asia summit in the Philippines, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam. Pence said his government would work closely with ASEAN to promote security and trade, and that the U.S. would continue its freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea.
China's sovereignty claims over most of the South China Sea have sparked territorial disputes with such ASEAN member states as the Philippines and Vietnam, and Chinese boats have also been spotted in Indonesian waters.
In the digital edition of English-language newspaper The Jakarta Post, Akbar Makarti, who works at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry's Directorate General for American and European Affairs, described Indonesia as playing three critical roles for the U.S.: bilateral trade partner, regional security ally and go-between with the Islamic community.
After his meeting with Widodo, Pence said the U.S. sought a fairer trade relationship with Indonesia, one of 16 economies under review for having a trade surplus with the U.S. Of that number, nine are in Asia: Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, India and Indonesia.
Pence was careful not to be too vocal about Washington's discontent about foreign exchange rates and trade with South Korea and Japan, both of which he visited before going to Indonesia. In South Korea, which in May will vote to elect the successor of Park Geun-hye, who was ousted from the presidency over a corruption scandal, the vice president said the U.S. would take a tough stance in addressing the North Korean nuclear and missile threat.
Pyongyang's weapons development also came up during Pence's visit to Japan, with the vice president promising Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Washington would fully cooperate with Tokyo in dealing with the threat.
In keeping with its "America first" policy, the Trump administration carried out a unilateral missile strike against Syria. But even as it makes such bold moves overseas, key diplomatic positions at the State Department remain vacant. Pence's words and actions during his recent Asian tour suggest that the Trump government is still fumbling to find a diplomatic policy.