The trip is Trump’s third overseas since he became president. His first official trip was in May to the Middle East, a visit perhaps best remembered for a glowing orb and a regional commitment to fight terrorism; the next was to Europe, where his failure to reaffirm NATO's mutual-defense commitment caused regional consternation. Trump then traveled in July to Poland, Germany, and France. It was during that trip that Trump asked “whether the West has the will to survive,” criticized Russia’s “destabilizing” role in Europe and the Middle East, and also reaffirmed U.S. commitment to NATO.
Trump has several advantages over Bush as he visits Asia. He is a relatively new president. The U.S. economy has grown for the past eight years. The next presidential election is three years away. Bush, by contrast, embarked on his trip with an election looming (which he lost to Bill Clinton), amid a recession, and as a familiar, if out of touch, establishment figure (he was vice president from 1980-1988 before his one-term presidency). What Bush did enjoy was the relative global stability in the wake of the end of the Cold War, the kind environment in which he could champion free-trade deals like NAFTA, and focus on business during his Asia visit.
Trump does not have that luxury. The “end of history” euphoria of the 1990s turned out to be presage a decline in the dominance of nation states in driving world events. Besides the North Korean crisis, terrorism, cybersecurity, and humanitarian crises loom over Trump’s trip to Asia—and he is expected to address all those issues during his attendance at the summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations in the Philippines. Trump, who has championed an “America First” trade policy, will push what he calls win-win trade with regional nations. At the same time, though the U.S. maintains a massive regional military presence, Trump has pressed American allies in the region to do more to protect themselves against belligerent states and terrorist groups.
China will perhaps be the most important stop in Trump’s visit. Not only will trade be a massive focus—executives from 29 mostly energy and commodity firms will accompany Trump to Asia—but China’s regional role, both positive and otherwise, will be at issue. As the U.S. steps back from some multilateral commitments—such as the Paris climate-change accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement—China has shown itself willing to step forward. It has made significant commitments to both reducing greenhouse emissions as well as regional economic cooperation through its Belt and Road initiative, the massive infrastructure initiative that aims to connect the world's second-largest economy to its Asian neighbors.
Trump views China as indispensable to resolving the impasse over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons and missile programs. He has in the past accused it of not doing enough to curb North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, though he has more recently lauded China’s cooperation. While it is true that Beijing says its influence on Pyongyang is overstated, it is also true that China opposes any move that would destabilize North Korea; it fears the possible spillover effects into its territory and views the North as a buffer against South Korea and Japan, both of which are avowedly pro-U.S. The U.S. and China may be united on the need to resolve the crisis (if not on exactly how), but they are at odds over the South China Sea, which China claims largely as its own, but parts of which are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries. The U.S. and its allies have repeatedly warned against the militarization of the area, but China says it is well within its rights to build bases in the sea. The U.S. also finds the Belt and Road initiative worrying. Administration officials have labeled the terms of the loans China offers countries that have signed onto the project “predatory economics.”