Trump’s On-Again, Off-Again Summit Style Unnerves Asian Allies

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea had staked a lot on brokering a meeting between President Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

TOKYO — Leaders in Asia have grown accustomed by now to President Trump’s breathtaking unpredictability.

But his handling of the planned summit meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — celebrating it, canceling it and then hinting it may still go on as planned, all in quick succession — took the whipsawing to new levels.

The zigzagging on the summit meeting, apparently done without consulting allies in the region, threatened to aggravate longstanding questions about America’s treatment of its partners in Asia and the long-term direction of its policies there.

“When you hear how uncoordinated it was, it really makes the administration look very thin-skinned and incompetent and mismanaged, especially in the sense of the allies,” said Jenny Town, the managing editor of 38 North, a website that researches North Korea.

Not involving Asian allies in the decision to scrap the summit appeared particularly damaging to and disrespectful of President Moon Jae-in of South Korea.

He had staked much on brokering the meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim and had assiduously flattered the American president, suggesting he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Yet Mr. Moon learned that Mr. Trump had called off the summit only after he arrived back in Seoul on Thursday from Washington, where he had spent Tuesday in the Oval Office discussing details of the planned meeting in Singapore. As recently as Monday, a South Korean official had said there was a “99.9 percent” chance of it happening.

The leader of another crucial ally, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, was on his way to Russia to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin when he got word. His aides had to scramble to catch up with the contents of Mr. Trump’s remarkable breakup letter after Mr. Abe landed in St. Petersburg.

By default, Mr. Trump’s mercurial behavior cast Mr. Kim and his advisers as the more mature diplomats. On Friday, the North indicated in restrained tones that it was willing to meet with the United States “any time, in any format, to resolve the problems.”

“I have to hand it to Kim Jong-un,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a scholar in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation in the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. “He has played this extremely well in terms of appearing to be the reasonable conciliator and the source of stability, whereas Donald Trump is the wild card.”

But Mr. Trump’s flip-flopping and disregard for how it might affect allies could unnerve regional partners that count on the United States to play a leadership role as a protector in the region — not only against North Korea, but also as a bulwark against a rising China.

In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has not only threatened a trade war with China but has announced policies that would hit allies as well. Despite a close relationship with Mr. Abe, Mr. Trump’s administration did not grant Japan an exemption from steel and aluminum tariffs, and earlier this week it announced a trade investigation that could set off auto tariffs against allies, including Japan and South Korea.

Such aggressive actions on trade raise the potential that Asia’s leaders may drift toward China, even if they do not entirely trust the administration of Xi Jinping, the country’s autocratic president.

“The dilemma lies in the fact that most Asian allies depend on the U.S. for their countries’ security while they depend on China for their economic prosperity,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor of Korean studies at Kyungnam University in Changwon, South Korea.

If the United States pulls back in the region, American allies worry China may exploit the vacuum, becoming more aggressive in pursuing territory in the South China Sea and using economic incentives to exert control over smaller countries in Southeast Asia.

Despite being caught off guard by Mr. Trump’s announcement, Mr. Abe may have been reassured by it, at least in the short term.

During the weeks of frenzied diplomacy between the United States and North and South Korea, Japan had been sidelined and feared that its security could be compromised by a deal that protected the United States but did not cover Asian allies.

Japan was especially worried Mr. Trump might accept a deal with North Korea in which Mr. Kim agreed to stop testing strategic ballistic missiles that could reach the United States while keeping shorter-range missiles that could target Japan.

On Friday in St. Petersburg, Mr. Abe said it was “unfortunate” that the summit meeting had been canceled. “But I respect and support President Trump’s judgment,” he added.

By putting the brakes on the summit, Mr. Trump may have bought time to better prepare, analysts in Japan said.

“It’s a lot better than to just rush it in two weeks,” said Ichiro Fujisaki, a former Japanese ambassador to the United States. “No meeting is better than a too risky or empty meeting.”

Japan has remained the most hard line of all the countries seeking to influence negotiations with North Korea, consistently calling for complete and immediate denuclearization as well as a return of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea four decades ago. Japan has also remained the most skeptical about North Korea’s motives, reminding the United States that the North has previously signed and then reneged on nuclear deals.

But casting North Korea as the bad guy may not be so straightforward in the Trump era.

“The hard-liners who define the Abe worldview will continue with this ‘Look, the North Koreans can’t be trusted,’” said Alexis Dudden, a professor at the University of Connecticut, who specializes in the modern history of Japan and Korea. “But in this regard, it’s the Trump administration who has pulled the plug out right now, so who can’t really be trusted right now? That’s the longer-term challenge: In the final push, the U.S. might not be there for Japan.”

In South Korea, analysts said that Mr. Moon could take advantage of the pause provided by summit’s suspension.

“This would give the U.S. allies in Asia like South Korea, though disappointed, some time to breathe and think about how to move forward,” said Kim Jae-yeop, a visiting professor of international relations at Hannam University in Daejeon City. “Maybe it will be like South Korea and the U.S. playing good cop versus bad cop when dealing with North Korea. Going forward, President Moon will have to show the United States that its ultimate goal with North Korea is not different from that of the U.S.”

But some analysts say that Mr. Trump’s waffling on the summit could make it more difficult to keep up pressure on the North to come to the negotiating table offering the full disarmament the president says he wants.

“North Korea has broken out of maximum pressure, and I don’t believe Trump can reapply it,” said Gordon Flake, chief executive of the Perth USAsia Center at the University of Western Australia. He pointed out that after the historic meeting between Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon in the border village of Panmunjom last month, South Koreans were “besotted” with Mr. Kim and would be reluctant to impose harsher sanctions.

More important, Mr. Flake said, is that China, which has now hosted two meetings between Mr. Kim and Mr. Xi, is less likely to enforce any sanctions. “Why would they do that now, when clearly the government and the Chinese people’s perspective is that the provocateur is Trump.”

Mr. Trump portrayed his cancellation of the summit and the possibility of resuming one as a natural part of deal making. “Everybody plays games,” he said on Friday to reporters.

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