As Mike Pence travels through Asia, questions arise about future of US involvement

Xenia Tan

Vice President Mike Pence started of his 10-day Asia tour with events in Seoul and Tokyo this week.

For the trip, Pence's main objective was "to reassure our allies, given the comments made by (President Donald) Trump during the campaign," according to Bruce Klinger, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former deputy division chief for the CIA.

Pressing issues such as trade and North Korea were discussed during talks with Korea's acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, in Seoul and with both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso.

The North Korea 'problem'

"North Korea is going to overshadow his first two stops; he will be wanting to explain to both our allies the perimeters of the recently completed trump policy on North Korea. And also seek their views on how best to address the North Korea threat," Klinger told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Wednesday.

President Donald Trump has suggested he neglected to label China a currency manipulator because Beijing is assisting in "the North Korean problem," but Sean King, senior vice president of Park Strategies suggested otherwise: "I want to know what help China is giving us on North Korea because as far as I see it, they're not doing anything."

King told CNBC on Tuesday that, instead, Japan will certainly support the U.S. against North Korea.

"[Japan] is probably telling Pence, hey listen, we're behind you — security alliance and all that. You protect the Senkakus, we're with you on North Korea. But if Trump has entered this so-called era of strategic impatience, just make sure if you do anything on the North, we don't end up as collateral damage."

However, despite worries of North Korea's nuclear missile capabilities, Klinger said he believed the North Korea issue could be less serious than it seemed.

"In my discussions with Trump administration officials, I get much less of a concern that we're about to do some kind of a military strike, then the view one gets from the public statements," he said. "Mr. Trump, the vice president and others have all made a series of really ominous statements that would seem to indicate we're on the cusp of some kind of military action. But I think behind the scenes, it's far more calm."


Japan may be a close U.S. ally, but the two nations have diverged on their trade outlook.

"Japan has moved on. Japan is in the twenty-first century, they fully bought into the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] and they want to talk about things like intellectual property rights, entry into the retail and financial sectors," he said. "But we've somehow gone back to the 1980s. And we want to talk about things like autos, agriculture, currency — even though we've just let China off the hook on that case."

Both King and Klinger suggested that the U.S. would offer to discuss a bilateral trade agreement with Japan and neither of them believed that Japan would be willing. According to King, the U.S. is trying to offer "a poor man's TPP" and he does not think Japan "has any interest in pursuing that."

All hope of a new trade relationship is not lost, according to King, who said that a resurrection of the TPP seemed possible, even if "it could be a little crazy."

However, Klinger disagreed that Trump would change his mind on this issue.

"President Trump has made it very clear that he doesn't like multilateral free trade agreements as much as some of us will like the TPP to have been passed," Klinger said, explaining that Trump "feels he gets stronger negotiating leverage in a bilateral."