Try to imagine what would happen if Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump decided U.S. policy toward Asia. U.S. presidential elections almost never hinge on foreign policy, but it’s worth pondering how a Trump administration might impact the world’s wealthiest and most populous region given his seeming nationalist-mercantilist philosophy of governance and transactional view of foreign policy. What would Asia become if Trump became president? In short: it would be a disaster.
Although he gives us only occasional glimpses via impolitic musings, we know several things about Trump’s orientation toward foreign policy, and Asia in particular. He believes in having a large, modern, and capable military. He believes in wielding the threat of force but not so much in the use of it. And he believes allies—especially Japan and South Korea—free-ride on U.S. commitments, which he claims has two consequences. One is that Americans are suckers for maintaining a forward military presence when they don’t need to; the other is that these allies are “eating our lunch” in trade imbalances and economic growth because they don’t spend enough on their own defense.
From these glimpses we can deduce a few major implications for Asia policy. All of them are disastrous.
First, Trump would likely withdraw the U.S. military from Asia and instead beef up a garrison force on U.S. territory, which would have enormous strategic consequences. Forward military presence does more than just assure allies and deter aggressors. It enables the United States to respond quickly to a crisis wherever it may be. If U.S. forces had to fly and sail from the continental United States to respond when its interests were threatened, it would show up to everything a day late and a dollar short. One of the central insights from deterrence literature has been that it’s much harder to reverse an action once taken than preventing the action in the first place. Yet if the United States is slow to deploy because of sheer distance, then every expansionist or revisionist actor in the international system would be able to present us with faits accompli. This means that if bad guys are conducting preventive strikes, launching guerrilla wars, conquering territory, or controlling sea lanes near them, the United States would either have to simply acquiesce, or challenge them after they’ve secured themselves and attempt to reverse their achievements at great cost.
Second, by eliminating U.S. forward presence in Asia, a Trump administration military would willingly give up escalation control. Although far from an exact science, escalation control requires being able to engage an adversary in a crisis or conflict without resorting to total annihilation or nuclear war. The total war approach was already tried in the form of President Eisenhower’s massive retaliation doctrine in the 1950s, which planted the seeds of a nuclear-armed China and North Korea, catalyzed the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, and left the United States ill-equipped to deal with real-world crises and low-intensity conflict, as repeatedly occurred with China in the 1950s. Even worse, if your solution to every military problem—no matter how small—is nuclear annihilation, other countries will eventually stop believing your threats or you’ll be forced to make good on that nuclear annihilation promise. Either outcome would be catastrophic.
As a corollary, if U.S. forces are based at home, then every crisis or conflict would represent a 21st century version of the massive retaliation doctrine because no tailored solutions, deterrence forces, or small troop deployments would be possible, because they’d have to first navigate across the Pacific Ocean to be relevant, by which time the outcome of a crisis or conflict may already be decided. A home-based U.S. force could only influence international outcomes by threatening massive retribution, which would immediately escalate any situation to an unacceptable and irresponsible level. As China seeks dominion over the South China Sea—through which $5 trillion of trade passes each year—a U.S. military absent from the region will have no sway over events. And if China succeeds in establishing de facto military domination of the South China Sea, it will be the United States, alongside allies and partners, who will lose freedom of navigation rights and the ability to engage in global commerce unencumbered.
Finally, Trump’s stance toward allies like Japan and South Korea would not simply wreck those alliances, but destabilize Northeast Asia’s precarious balance. Without a U.S. alliance, both states are dramatically more likely to develop their own nuclear weapons, which destroys the possibility of preserving a nuclear nonproliferation regime, and consequently would make it impossible to prevent other determined states, like Iran, from going nuclear. And with the United States walking away from its clear commitments to Japan and South Korea, there would be no credible prospect of the United States coming to the aid of Taiwan, where U.S. commitments are more ambiguous. China’s determination to absorb Taiwan—even against the latter’s will—would face dramatically fewer inhibitions if China knew Taiwan would not have U.S. backing.
More than simply abandoning Japan, Trump seems to indicate we would enter a confrontational phase in U.S.-Japan relations. He blames Japan for not spending enough on defense, but Japan’s closest neighbors have long been wary of a militarily “normal” Japan. Without the United States, moreover, a Japan with a large and advanced military may push South Korea—whose diplomatic relations with Japan have long been tense—into alignment with China. And although Trump makes a bogeyman out of U.S. trade imbalances with Japan, he overlooks the fact that U.S. trade relations with Japan benefit the United States; Toyota, for example, manufactures cars for the U.S. market in many low-income areas in the United States, providing tens of thousands of jobs for Americans. Trade imbalances are an abstraction; jobs are real.
Of South Korea, Trump asks, “…how long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment?” Never mind that South Korea does share the cost of stationing U.S. troops in South Korea, that the South does contribute to U.S. security interests around the world, or that the anti-Americanism in North Korean identity means we’re defending ourselves from North Korea in addition to the South. Because we maintain a military presence in South Korea, deterrence has prevailed. Yet Trump says, “…the young man from North Korea starts acting up…we immediately get our ships going. We get our aircraft. We get nothing for this.” Avoiding large-scale casualties or chemical warfare is not “nothing;” it’s peace, however precarious. Perhaps Trump would prefer to see a second Korean War?
Trump’s slogan is “Make America great again.” But willfully ceding U.S. global leadership isn’t greatness. Abandoning the global liberal order to others isn’t greatness. Allowing large-scale atrocities or the end of a generation of peace in Asia when you have the ability to prevent it isn’t greatness. And neither is reneging on U.S. commitments. Far from being “great,” Trump’s Asia policy is morally, economically, and strategically unconscionable.