Will a President Donald Trump let U.S. allies in Asia fend for themselves in the face of a rising China, or will he join them to curb Beijing’s ambitions? As a candidate Mr. Trump and his advisers sent out conflicting signals. As President-elect he needs to move fast to deliver a message of U.S. reassurance and resolve.
In April Mr. Trump alarmed Japan and South Korea with a suggestion that they “would in fact be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea” with their own nuclear weapons. Both countries were already nervous about the U.S. commitment to retaliate in the event of a nuclear attack by the North. Mr. Trump’s statement exacerbated those fears and probably emboldened Pyongyang.
South Korea especially had reason to feel aggrieved since it agreed this year to join a U.S. missile defense system despite diplomatic and economic pressure from China. President Park Geun-hye took the politically risky decision to start intelligence sharing with former colonial master Japan, as requested by the U.S. Seoul has also markedly increased its defense spending in recent years. Contrary to what Mr. Trump suggested during the campaign, South Korea also helps foot the bill for U.S. troops, to the tune of $900 million a year.
Japan is also spending more on defense, although in the long run it needs to expand military spending well beyond its current 1% of GDP. Domestic and regional opposition will make that a gradual process. Mr. Trump’s criticism of Japan as an ally didn’t help Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who supports both more defense spending and making the U.S. alliance more equal.
In short, the security situation in Northeast Asia is very different from Europe, where a stronger case can be made that NATO allies are free-riding on the U.S. security umbrella. To his credit, Mr. Trump seems to be mending fences since his victory. He called Ms. Park on Thursday to tell her that the U.S. will continue to honor its treaty obligations. He will likely do the same when he meets Mr. Abe in the next week. A public statement that the U.S. will maintain or increase its current force structure in Asia would also be a smart move.
Meanwhile, Trump advisers Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro laid out a positive vision for Asia policy in the Nov. 7 issue of Foreign Policy magazine. They deride the Obama Administration’s “pivot to Asia” as “talking loudly but carrying a small stick.” Washington’s inaction when China seized Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, they argue, led to President Rodrigo Duterte’s courtship of Beijing.
A Trump Administration, they suggest, will push back against China’s efforts to bully its neighbors. It will repudiate Bill Clinton’s commitment to help China isolate Taiwan. Most critically, it will defend the right of free navigation through the South China Sea, which China claims as its historical waters.
To back up its Asian alliances, Messrs. Gray and Navarro say, the U.S. should return to the Reagan-era mantra of “peace through strength.” That requires the end of sequestration for the defense budget and expansion of the U.S. Navy toward a goal of 350 ships.
That’s sensible, but Mr. Trump and his advisers underestimate the difficulty of maintaining the Pax Americana without a policy to promote the region’s prosperity. China has become the largest trade partner of most East Asian nations and is not shy about using that leverage.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Mr. Trump promised to cancel on day one of his Presidency, would open markets for American companies and create jobs at home. Equally important, it would bind together U.S. allies and potential allies in a more open system opposed to the cronyism and money diplomacy practiced by Beijing.
Mr. Trump also promised to punish China for unfair trading practices at the start of his Presidency. He should know that such unilateral moves could hasten confrontation with Beijing and would carry substantial risks of retaliation and a global recession.
The Obama Administration got many things wrong in foreign policy, but it did understand that America’s security in the 21st century will depend in large part on the strength of U.S. engagement in Asia—to defend friends, enhance trading relationships and thwart China’s ambitions to become the region’s hegemon. The right course for President Trump isn’t to reverse course, but to follow the same path with greater conviction and speed.