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  November 9th, 2017 | Written by

Trump at APEC: A Wild Card

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  • Advance agenda of Trump's Asia trip: digital trade, structural reform, trade facilitation, and services trade.
  • Every president to attend APEC has advanced a vision for US economic engagement in the region.
  • Trump might say something at APEC that suggests US will pull out of Korea FTA.

President Donald Trump is heading to Da Nang, Vietnam, tomorrow for the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) Leaders’ Meeting on November 10 and 11.

The good news is that Trump is going. The wild card on this leg of the trip will be what he is going to do there.

The State Department briefing in advance of Trump’s Asia trip laid out a fairly conventional approach to the meeting, emphasizing priorities like digital trade, structural reform, trade facilitation, services trade, and women’s economic participation.

What exactly will Trump make of his attendance at APEC? Will he emphasize trade deficits and unfair trade practices? Is he going to affect an aggressive posture on these issues? Will he advance a vision for US economic engagement in the region?

“Every president to date has done that, and particularly on their first trip to the region,” said Matthew Goodman, a senior adviser for Asian economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, at a press briefing in Washington last week. “And so that’s what I think everyone’s asking, what’s he going to lay out.”

It’s possible he will speak about his idea for negotiating bilateral free-trade agreements, not much of a vision at all. Japan and Vietnam would be the obvious candidates for such an approach since the US already has FTAs with some of the other countries, including Australia, Singapore, and South Korea. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer emphasized bilateral relations at an APEC ministers meeting in May.

“But there are a lot of questions about whether those bilateral FTAs are going to be achievable in the near term,” said Goodman, “particularly because of the capacity constraints on the administration dealing with NAFTA—in particular, that is their priority—and questions about whether you can actually a better deal in a bilateral deal. It’s questionable whether Japan is going to give more in a bilateral deal than they had given in TPP.”

In its preview of this Asia trip, the White House didn’t mention trade as part of he agenda with Japan or South Korea, leading Goodman to speculate whether those issues will be downplayed in favor of a focus on North Korea and other non-economic issues.

Trump has already railed against the US-South Korea FTA because of the bilateral trade deficit, leading Goodman to muse whether Trump might “say something that suggests that we might ultimately not only renegotiate, but possibly pull out of that deal.”