The White House has promised a vigorous schedule as President Donald Trump embarks on his first trip to Asia, in what will be the longest trip to the region by any U.S. president in the last 25 years, a trek which officials say demonstrates his “long-term commitment” to the region.
But even though Trump will be halfway around the world, he will undoubtedly be forced to respond to the latest developments in the Russia probe and the rollout of the new GOP tax bill.
Here’s a look at the storylines to watch on the trip:
NORTH KOREA TAKES CENTER STAGE
It’s safe to say that the dark cloud hovering over every stop on Trump’s Asia visit is the nuclear standoff with North Korea. His trip will bring him face-to-face with both allies and adversaries in the region who have bristled at his freewheeling threats of nuclear annihilation of the country.
The president has said he will press for direct confrontation of Kim Jong Un’s aggressive behavior, but it will be a major test of whether he can formulate an approach differing from that of his predecessors that will encourage North Korea to improve its behavior and avoid the disastrous last resort of military conflict.
TRUMP’S CHINA BALANCING ACT
On his inaugural trip to China, Trump will be forced to confront arguably a more complex and immediate array of diplomatic, trade and security challenges than any of his predecessors. He has publicly touted his strong rapport with China’s President Xi Jinping, but Trump will now have to flex his dealmaking muscle on Xi’s home turf.
The president is expected to confront Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property, increasing incursions into the South China Sea, vouch for a more favorable trade relationship on the U.S. side, while also working to pressure China to exert any leverage it may have over North Korea’s Kim to put a halt to his country’s aggressive actions in the Korean Peninsula.
DUTERTE THE DICTATOR: TRUMP GETS COZY WITH THE PHILIPPINES’ STRONGMAN
Trump is already appearing eager for his first one-on-one meeting with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte. Their upcoming encounter is raising alarm bells among human rights groups worried that Trump’s lax demeanor could be viewed by Duterte as an implicit endorsement of extrajudicial killings conducted by his regime.
In the Philippines, Duterte has been called “the Donald Trump of the East.” The two men have what an administration official describes as a “warm relationship” that has consisted of phone calls and letter exchanges. Trump will surely use the visit to capitalize on his predecessor’s strained relationship with the Filipino leader, previewing the visit with a swipe at Obama Tuesday at the White House.
“We are going to Vietnam and the Philippines, which is a strategically important location where the previous administration was not exactly welcome as you remember,” Trump said. Duterte previously referred to President Barack Obama as a “son of a whore” who should “go to hell.”
RUSSIA PRESSURE REACHES NEW HEIGHTS
Trump’s extended retreat away from Washington D.C. comes just as special counsel Robert Mueller has taken his first major steps in ramping up his investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged Russia ties.
Chief of staff John Kelly has most recently described the president as “very distracted” by the probe and previous trips abroad have hardly brought any respite from developments the president has been forced to respond to amid his meetings with world leaders.
White House officials are mum so far on whether Trump could cross paths again with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will be in attendance at the APEC Summit in Vietnam.
TRUMP SENDS MESSAGE TO ASIA TRADE PARTNERS, LEAVING KEY ECONOMIC ADVISERS AT HOME TO PUSH TAX REFORM
Trump has asked his top advisers Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and National Economic Council director Gary Cohn to stay in the U.S. and push for that big-ticket legislative item that Trump hopes to sign by Christmas: tax reform.
The president’s daughter Ivanka Trump has also canceled meetings she had previously scheduled in China and South Korea, cutting her own trip short to assist in the lobbying effort at home. The absence of these key advisers will be notable as the president sits down for critical conversations on trade and economic issues with Asian leaders.