Now, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, and others are assessing whether Trump intends to deliver on his rhetoric. Both President Shinzo Abe of Japan and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye called Trump immediately after his victory to assert the importance of their alliances with the United States, with Abe becoming the first foreign leader to huddle with Donald Trump at his gold-plated meeting room at Trump Tower in New York last Thursday. Though Abe disclosed few details about what they discussed, he described their exchange as “candid,” and expressed confidence that “Trump is a trustworthy leader.”
Until Trump’s foreign-policy team is fully assembled, it won’t be clear whether or how his isolationist inclinations will translate into actual policy, especially given that, unlike traditional American isolationists, he also wants to massively expand the country’s military might. With Trump perhaps prepared to upend the post-war liberal order, how countries across the Pacific respond to the potential sudden power vacuum opened up by a U.S. withdrawal will determine whether the region falls under the sway of China, or instead engages in an arms race as countries that depended on Washington for security look to protect themselves.
The first challenge awaiting Abe and other Asian leaders is the confounding question of whether Trump simply said whatever he thought it took to win. In a manifesto published in Foreign Policy two days before the election, Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro, two of the president-elect’s advisors, offered a rough sketch of what a Trump Asia policy could look like: containing China’s rise by investing more money in the U.S. military, while drawing closer to regional partners like Thailand, who, under the Obama administration, were held at arms length over their poor human-rights records. A relatively conventional-sounding Republican foreign policy such as this would differ sharply from the isolationist vision Trump articulated on the trail. If this is the course he pursues, Pacific nations currently hosting U.S. troops may need make only minor adjustments.
“These northeast Asian allies might have to buy into [the idea of] Trump the deal maker and try to give him a better deal,” Brian Harding, director for East and Southeast Asia for the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress, suggested. “I’ve been telling the Japanese government for a year, if Donald Trump is elected they need to throw a billion dollars at something,” such as increasing Japanese government funding to host U.S. troops, he added.
Foreign-policy experts like Aaron Connelly, a research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, note that while the United States has often raised cost-sharing concerns with its allies, the tribute-like system Trump has outlined represents a serious break from tradition. “We’ve never handled our alliance system like a protection racket. … We’ve always handled cost-sharing from the perspective of two allies engaged in a common effort to ensure peace and stability in the region,” Connelly said. But at least the protection-racket rhetoric assumes that the United States will continue to play a role defending allies in the region. Assuming the allies pay up.