By Michael Buckalew
With his decisive victory in Indiana on May 3rd, Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Even at this early stage in the general election campaign, Trump's statements on foreign policy have already had an impact on U.S. foreign relations. While much of his rhetoric has focused on Mexico and ISIL, what Trump has said about our allies in Asia may be even more consequential. His statements fall into three groups: 1) Slandering Japan and South Korea's alliance contributions, 2) Creating uncertainty about long standing assumptions about American policy that underpin global security, and 3) Calling into question American leadership in the world.
In a March 29th interview with Anderson Cooper, Trump said that, "[South Korea has] to protect themselves or they have to pay us." At a rally in Wisconsin on April 2nd, he levied a similar criticism at Japan: "[I]f we say to Japan we need help, you have to help us, because we can't continue to lose a fortune defending you...That doesn't mean I want them to arm [themselves with nuclear weapons], but it's possible." In response to Trump's statement, Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida emphasized that, "It is impossible that Japan will arm itself with nuclear weapons."
Japan spends more than $1.7 billion in direct costs related to U.S. bases in Japan in addition to $4 billion for base-related expenses and has contributed $3.1 billion for a plan to relocate U.S. soldiers from Japan to Guam. For its part, South Korea contributed $866.86 million or 40% of total housing costs for U.S. soldiers stationed in their country.
Factually inaccurate statements denigrating Japan and Korea's contributions have already led to our allies seeing him as unqualified, and have heightened fears about what a President Trump would say and do. Seeking to reassure the Japanese public, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responded directly to Trump's comments to emphasize that the "Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of Japanese diplomacy." In South Korea, the entire ideological spectrum of the press, from the conservative Choson Ilbo to the left-wing Hankyoreh newspapers, are dumbfounded by and opposed to Donald Trump's foreign policy views.
As troubling as these statements are, Donald Trump's comments about nuclear weapons demonstrate a lack of an even basic understanding of Japanese and South Korean history. Japan is the only nation to have nuclear bombs dropped on them in wartime. Consequently, Japan's post-World War II identity is framed by the 'Three Non-Nuclear Principles', which are to never "possess, permit, or introduce nuclear weapons in line with Japan's Peace Constitution."
Going even further, Nobumasa Akiyama of the Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of International and Public Policy said that, "[Japan] is very much embarrassed that [a] potential president of the United States sort of encouraged us to think about the nuclear option...Is the U.S. really giving up the world leadership position?" If Trump's proposal were to come to pass it would undermine U.S. influence and standing in the region, according to this line of argument.
In South Korea, the responses to Trump's statements were mostly negative. South Korean President Park Geun-Hye responded by saying that her government "maintains an unwavering stance in support of denuclearization." Trump's statements create a number of negative perceptions among South Koreans. First, it would undermine efforts towards a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, which has been a top goal of the last three South Korean presidents. Second, it creates a great deal of uncertainty for the public and policymakers because of how central the alliance with the United States is to South Korean foreign affairs. Without the alliance, South Korea would have to radically reformulate their diplomatic and defense priorities, which would ripple throughout the region. Hyun-Wook Kim, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy stated the following about Trump: "He's very irrational, emotional and does not really care about consistency in policy. He is very risky."
Taken together, Trump's statements about our allies and nuclear proliferation raise grave concerns about what U.S. leadership in Asia would look like under a President Trump. If he followed through on his promises and withdrew U.S. troops from Japan and South Korea it would destabilize Northeast Asia's balance of power. Historically, China dominated the region and on several occasions Japan tried to revise the status quo through wars with China in the 16th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, which were often fought on the Korean Peninsula. Since 1945, U.S. forces in the region have served to check aggression, along with quelling fears of a revival of Japanese militarism, especially among South Koreans. Without a U.S. military presence in Northeast Asia, Japan's security fears would be heightened, which could lead to rapid growth in Japanese military spending or even Japan going nuclear. This could incentivize South Korea to go nuclear in response to the combination of a continued real threat from North Korea and a perceived threat from a 'remilitarizing' Japan.
Trump's electoral success thus far raised genuine fears in Japan and South Korea of growing neo-isolationist sentiment among the American public. Could any potential ally ever again credibly believe a U.S. security guarantee if American troops were withdrawn under the foreign policy of a potential Trump presidency?
Regardless of who his opponent is in this November's elections, the choice on foreign policy will be clearer than it has been in more than half century. A President Trump would represent an unparalleled break in American foreign affairs and lead to irreversible damage to the United States' standing in Asia and the world.
Michael Buckalew received an MA in International Studies from Korea University in Seoul, South Korea and a BA in History and Political Science from Arcadia University. He is a Fellowship Editor at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).