The Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy will undermine the United States’ ability to continue strategic cooperation with Japan and South Korea, and make it more difficult to counter regional security threats ranging from North Korean provocations to Chinese assertiveness. For years, President Trump has disparaged America’s two key allies in East Asia as “free-riders” who are reluctant to make greater contributions and commitments to regional security. But this position only reveals his misunderstanding of US Indo-Pacific strategies and a shortsighted focus on immediate gains instead of long-term benefits. His foreign policies, epitomized by this satirical simile, also contribute to mounting public criticism of the US president and misgivings shared between Japan and South Korea. It is time for President Trump to tone down his rhetoric, review implications of past diplomacy, and recalibrate US strategies in East Asia.
Since the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, which labels China and North Korea as major challenges to US national security, America has shifted priorities to expanding security cooperation and attempting to strengthen decades-old alliances in East Asia. Ironically, President Trump’s “America First” policy pushes the US in the opposite direction, crippling the fundamental unity of the tripartite alliance and reducing two partners’ public confidence in the US president.
One of the most egregious manifestations of this new reality is President Trump’s strident demands in respective trade deals with Japan and South Korea, which have dealt a blow to America’s leadership and credibility in East Asia. The president’s incentives for dismantling the Trans-Pacific Partnership, like promoting “more efficient markets” in independent treaties, have reduced South Korea’s trade surplus with the US and subjected Japan to reduced-tariffs on its imported US agricultural products that will harm Japanese domestic agriculture. In exchange, the Trump administration has only made vague promises that it may refrain from imposing tariffs on Asian auto imports.
Overthrowing the TPP has already sown seeds of disunity and uncertainty by presenting the US as an untrustworthy partner that eschews the initiatives it champions.
Overthrowing the TPP has already sown seeds of disunity and uncertainty by presenting the US as an untrustworthy partner that eschews the initiatives it champions. These lopsided deals orchestrated by President Trump further escalate distrust and concern among America’s East Asian allies. Public confidence in the US president among the Japanese and South Korean people also collapsed from around 60-80% under the Obama administration to 20-40% under Trump. This doubt about a capricious and unresponsive US opens political space for Japanese and South Korean policymakers to consider alternative accommodations, such as South Korea pursuing closer cooperation in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Japan leaning towards its co-founded Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Far from clearing the noxious air of disorder in a post-TPP East Asia, President Trump’s “America First” cost-sharing negotiation for American military bases in Japan and South Korea has again inflicted damages on US security interests. President Trump’s repeated demands that Japan and South Korea quintuple their payments for US military bases in the region only serves to exacerbate already fraying relations. Disruptive actions, including the temporary suspension of military exercises on the Korean peninsula and the announcement that all Korean employees at US bases could be furloughed in the absence of a new agreement, have not mended any fences.
Rising levels of dissatisfaction and antagonism may also cause President Trump to reduce 28,000 US troops in South Korea and 50,000 in Japan. Shrinking the American military presence under current volatile circumstances would thwart the US’ commitment to regional security and its long-term efforts to manage East Asian power competition. Instability in the regional security architecture, stemming from waning American military influence, will not only embolden North Korea to resume nuclear weapon tests, but could also open opportunities for China to alter the strategic balance in the region. And against the backdrop of increasing frictions among the tripartite alliance is an unremitting Chinese push for closer cooperation with its two neighbors through mutual defense treaties and a trilateral Free Trade Agreement. Progressive changes in regional dynamics shaped by President Trump’s withdrawal of US forces will add more strains on the already tense alliance and have a negative bearing on US security cooperation objectives in East Asia.
In the past, widespread pro-US attitudes among the Japanese and South Korean people have constituted the bedrock of US East Asian strategies. The tripartite alliance reinforced by respective domestic backing facilitates the implementation of American policies to subdue the rise of both China and North Korea. A favorable relationship also sets an indispensable precedent for US engagement within and beyond the region for the future, especially for issues concerning Taiwan and US-ASEAN security cooperation. That instead of this longstanding support we have now seen a sharp decline in two allies’ public confidence in the US president, along with increasing grudges among their ruling regimes, sabotages the US-led strategic architecture in East Asia. The portal to a more cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship in support of US East Asian interests stands in equitable and respectful exchanges rather than President’s controversial demands. President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, unfortunately, illuminates the wrong path that endangers the tripartite alliance with disarray.
Shaobin Zheng is a researcher with the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy. Native in Mandarin and Taiwanese, he concentrates on international affairs regarding Chinese foreign policymaking, Sino-US relations, Mainland China-Taiwan issues, and Asia-Pacific strategies. The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Security Assistance Monitor or the Center for International Policy.