For all the meticulous planning of Donald Trump’s Asia tour, one question may plague his jet-lagged advisors: Can the notoriously impulsive president navigate nearly two weeks of diplomatic protocols and geopolitical pitfalls—all the while keeping his Twitter habit in check?
North Korea and trade talks will top Trump’s agenda on his marathon tour of the region, as Air Force One whisks him between five countries in 12 days. A crammed itinerary will see the president attend summits with communist bosses, a reception at Japan’s imperial court and—of course—play nine holes of golf.
But his personal rapport with a rotating cast of the region’s leaders is likely to determine the success or failure of his trip, with global repercussions.
Trump enjoys a friendly relationship with Japan’s Shinzo Abe, and a frosty start to dealings with Xi Jinping has blossomed into a near-bromance with the Chinese leader praised as “powerful” and “pretty terrific.” But an uncertain welcome lies in store in South Korea—which Trump has accused of appeasing a certain “Rocket Man” to the North—and the Philippines, where any mention of human rights is liable to send President Rodrigo Duterte further into the arms of Beijing.
“I expect this will be an unconventional visit by an unconventional president,” said the Brookings Institution’s Ryan Hass, a former security adviser under the Obama administration.
Japan, Nov. 5-7
With Japan and the U.S. so closely aligned on policy, one expert has suggested that Trump is only stopping by to get in a round with his golfing buddy Abe. The pair will hit the fairways only hours after Trump lands but, perhaps given the seriousness of the international situation, they are only expected to play nine holes—not the 27 they managed in Florida.
In another attempt to put the president at ease, Japan is rolling out wacky crooner and internet sensation Pikotaro, whose bizarre 45-second “pen-pineapple-apple-pen” ditty went viral last year.
That will be a prelude for a meeting with the Japanese emperor—a protocol minefield that tripped up Barack Obama when he bowed deeply to the 83-year-old Akihito, drawing fire from conservatives.
South Korea, Nov. 7-8
In Seoul, Trump is scheduled to address South Korea’s parliament, raising concerns he could go off script and send tensions with the nuclear-armed North spiraling with an impromptu remark.
Trump has been engaged in an escalating war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, trading threats and personal insults. In his maiden address to the U.N. General Assembly he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. “If Trump says anything that can provoke North Korea, it could send military tensions soaring again,” said Koo Kab-Woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Arriving in South Korea after Japan, Trump will have to tread carefully to avoid any suggestion that he favors either of the two key U.S. military allies—whose own ties are strained by historical issues.
The U.S. president has a much cooler relationship with left-leaning South Korean President Moon Jae-In—who he has accused of appeasement towards the North—than he does with Abe.
China, Nov. 8-10
China is preparing to greet Donald Trump with what Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai described as a “state-visit plus,” with an extra dose of pomp and circumstance for the billionaire real estate developer.
Beijing is expected to roll out a military honor guard, formal banquet, and billions of dollars of trade deals that the American leader can tout on Twitter. The elaborate stagecraft comes against a backdrop of a wide range of contentious issues, from a yawning trade deficit to Beijing’s handling of obstreperous neighbor North Korea.
But the virulent anti-China rhetoric of Trump’s election campaign has given way to effusive praise for Xi. “He’s a powerful man,” Trump recently declared. “I happen to think he’s a very good person.”
David Dollar, an expert on China’s economy at Brookings, predicted Xi would grant Trump a lavish welcome but few concessions. “The Chinese are basically quite content with the status quo of the economic relationship,” he said.
Aside from pressing matters of trade and security, another issue hovers over Trump’s visit—will he be able to break through the so-called Great Firewall in a country that has blocked Twitter?
Asked whether Trump will be able to tweet while on Chinese soil, vice foreign minister Zheng Zeguang told reporters: “How President Trump communicates with the outside is not something you need to worry about.”
Vietnam, Nov. 10-12
Thanks to several draft deferments, Trump studiously avoided Vietnam during the war era, but arrives in the Southeast Asian country with trade topping the agenda. He is expected to wax lyrical on his “America First” doctrine, calling for bilateral deals and free markets for U.S. goods at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. He will also come face to face with members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) still bristling at his decision to pull out of the massive trade pact, which he decried as a “killer” for American jobs.
Philippines, Nov. 12-13
In the Philippines, where Trump will take part in a summit of Southeast Asian leaders, the U.S. president’s signals on Duterte’s controversial crackdown on drugs will be closely watched.
The drug war has claimed thousands of lives and led rights groups to warn he may be orchestrating a crime against humanity. Duterte infamously branded Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, a “son of a whore” for criticizing the campaign, sending relations into a deep freeze.
Trump praised Duterte’s handling of the drug war in a telephone conversation early this year, helping to mend ties but leading to criticism that the American president had little regard for human rights. The most dramatic moment may come when the pair meet, a moment when Duterte typically urges visitors to do his trademark clenched fist salute.
Critics have compared the gesture to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi salute, and say it represents Duterte’s disdain for human rights.