Geopolitics

Buckle Up For Trump's 10-Day Blast To Asia

The stakes and uncertainty are high as the U.S. President begins a 10-day trip to five Asian countries. To begin with, decorum is extra important in this part of the world.

Time for take-off (on an earlier Trump visit)
Time for take-off (on an earlier Trump visit)
Ishaan Tharoor

Set aside the various political battles convulsing Washington and the grim fallout of the terrorism attack in New York City. Starting this weekend, President Donald Trump will, in theory, put domestic issues on the back burner as he embarks upon an important series of state visits in Asia.

Trump's tour will begin in Japan with a golf outing with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday, followed by meetings in Tokyo and then further stops in South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. It will be the longest trip taken by any U.S. president since George H.W. Bush traveled through Asia in 1991 - and ended the journey by vomiting in the Japanese prime minister's lap during dinner. Officials in the White House are surely hoping for no such events this time.

In each country, Trump will have a fair amount of work to do. In Vietnam and the Philippines, he'll attend two key regional summits, where America's many allies in the region are hoping to hear the reassuring words of a traditional American president, rather than Trump's campaign-trail barking, questioning Washington's long-standing overseas commitments.

Trump's advisers have outlined three guiding themes to the trip: a tough line on North Korea's nuclear threat; a commitment to an "open and free" Indo-Pacific region (or rather, a check on Chinese maritime pushiness); and a reckoning with Asian partners over what Trump sees as unfair trade deficits. Meanwhile, here's what the world is wondering about Trump's journey:

Is Trump going to embarrass himself and offend others?

Given Trump's propensity for abrasive tweets and unscripted rants, the first concern for some of his protocol team would be the risk of causing offense in a part of the world attuned to etiquette and decorum. President Barack Obama once courted controversy by merely chewing gum while arriving at a 2014 summit in Beijing. Trump's planned audience with Japan's emperor may come under particular scrutiny.

"The president will use whatever language he wants to use," said national security adviser H.R. McMaster at a Thursday press briefing when asked whether Trump would curb his sometimes incendiary rhetoric.

Trump seems to be at least aware of such worries. "I don't want to embarrass anybody four days before I land in China," Trump said at a Cabinet meeting this weekend, after he again complained about "bad" trade deals with certain countries.

Can Trump translate good personal relationships into policy wins?

Trump has hosted Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and boasted of cultivating a good rapport with both leaders. But it remains to be seen whether such bonhomie can pay dividends on a grander scale.

In Japan, Trump has a much easier mission. Abe, a notably hawkish nationalist, is happy with Trump's eagerness to sell more arms to American allies in the region. Trump's arrival will be preceded by his daughter Ivanka's star turn Friday, when she'll address the Japanese government's "World Assembly of Women" conference.

In China, though, Trump may face a more complicated showdown. The American president is expected to lean heavily on his Chinese counterpart to get Beijing to economically and politically isolate North Korea, while he's also likely to clash with Xi over their differences on trade.

"I think the sense that one gets is that privately, most likely ... Trump will effectively tell Xi Jinping, "I'm coming after you on trade especially," " said Christopher Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And I think the Chinese, because of that concern, are very eager to use the summit meeting to try to press the reset button on the relationship between the two presidents."

What can Trump really achieve on North Korea?

Pyongyang's nuclear threat will loom over most of Trump's deliberations in East Asia. But the question remains: What will he actually do about it? So far, despite Trump's saber-rattling tweets, U.S. actions have been more or less a continuation of Obama-era policies - that is, pursuing a tough regime of international sanctions that may compel the North Koreans to come to the table.

But any diplomatic effort will require a united front with a host of countries with varying interests. Trump's main job may be to figure out what the next steps might be.

"Beyond pushing China to implement the sanctions already in place and perhaps getting them to introduce a few more, one option would be to bring Korea, Japan, and Russia back into the conversation," Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations suggests. "In this case, five heads may well be better than two."

Other analysts are more skeptical. Michael Auslin of the Hoover Institute thinks that North Koreans will never surrender their nuclear weapons program and, after successive presidents have failed to stop Pyogyang's nuclear buildup, that this White House needs to learn how to live with that.

"What the president should do is simple, if radical," Auslin wrote this year. "He should admit the failure of America's North Korea policy since the 1990s and abandon the fantasy of "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization." Instead, he should acknowledge that North Korea is a nuclear weapons-capable state, and that the United States will treat it as such. That means revamping U.S. policy toward explicit containment and deterrence of a nuclear North Korea."

How will Trump articulate America's role in Asia?

Perhaps the biggest question looming over Trump's trip is what role the "America First" president will play not only in bilateral meetings with leaders such as Abe and Xi, but at regional summits such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vietnam and the ASEAN meetings in the Philippines. Trump and a coterie of his advisers have lambasted the multilateralism pursued by American presidents and questioned the United States' commitment to the prevailing order, underwritten by decades of U.S. military might, that brought half a century of relative stability and prosperity to East Asia. Trump can either assuage Asian partners that he's sticking to the long-established script, or take a radical turn.

His recent praise for the political successes of both the Chinese president and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte seem to confirm something else: the absence of any real interest on his part in even rhetorically defending human rights and democracy on the global stage.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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