Trans-Pacific View

What is the Future of US Policy Toward Japan and Korea?

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Trans-Pacific View

What is the Future of US Policy Toward Japan and Korea?

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump espouse very different policies toward America’s two biggest allies in Asia.

What is the Future of US Policy Toward Japan and Korea?

Then-U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton meets with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, in New York City, September 28, 2012.

Credit: U.S. State Department / Flickr

The Democratic and Republican candidates for president offer starkly different approaches to foreign policy generally and toward Japan and South Korea in particular. Hillary Clinton, on the one hand, has well-understood views and a known group of advisors with long foreign policy experience who will likely serve in her administration. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has little background in foreign policy, but has long-held views questioning America’s military alliances, its role in the world, and the benefits of trade liberalization — views largely falling outside the Republican mainstream.

Predicting the impact of a Trump presidency on U.S. relations with Japan and Korea is difficult since the Congress, the executive branch, and the public will oppose many of his positions. Assessing U.S. policy toward Japan and Korea under a Clinton Administration, by comparison, is relatively straightforward. After an early attempt to distance herself from Obama’s foreign policies after she stepped down as secretary,  Clinton has consistently supported the president, particularly when it comes to the Asia Pacific. And with exception of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), her major positions amount to an extension of those of the Obama Administration in which she served.

Clinton demonstrated her commitment to Asia as secretary by breaking with tradition and making her initial overseas trip to the region rather than Europe, stopping first in Japan and later in Korea. She was one of the architects of Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, a strategy she articulated in an article in Foreign Policy in 2011, in which she noted that, “One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment—diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise —in the Asia-Pacific region.”

She went on to spell out a strategy of “strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening our working relationships with emerging powers, including with China; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights.” Clinton calls the U.S. alliance with Japan, “the cornerstone of peace and stability in the region,” and characterizes the alliance with Korea as having “become stronger and more operationally integrated, and we continue to develop our combined capabilities to deter and respond to North Korean provocations.”

Clinton reiterated her views on the importance of the pivot once out of office. In a speech at the Brookings Institution in 2015, she said, “I think we’ve come some ways in trying to rebalance, but we have a long way to go, and there’s much at stake in how we deal with all the players in Asia.”

Indeed, her views as candidate on the pivot appear largely unchanged since her days in the Obama Administration, with one exception: she no longer supports TPP.

As secretary, Clinton repeatedly praised the trade deal and urged its completion and implementation. Once an agreement was reached in 2015, however, Clinton announced her skepticism: “the bar here is very high and, based on what I have seen, I don’t believe this agreement has met it.”

While that statement appeared to leave room for further review and perhaps a different conclusion, she later seemed to shut the door on revising her opinion for the foreseeable future, when she said “I oppose it now, I’ll oppose it after the election, and I’ll oppose it as president.”

In theory, Congress could pass TPP during the lame duck session after the election and before the new Congress starts in 2017.  However, the Speaker of the House has said there are not enough votes for passage while the Senate Majority Leader has flatly stated that TPP “will not be acted upon this year.”

Clinton’s current strident opposition leaves her little flexibility to re-embrace TPP in her first term as president, and reopening it to new negotiations requires the other 11 signatory countries to agree, a step they have unanimously opposed.

TPP has served as the economic pillar of the U.S. pivot to Asia; in fact, there is no alternative, and without the United States, the deal’s rules specify that it cannot go into effect. Failure by the U.S. to implement TPP will likely be viewed in Asia as a failure of the pivot, and questions about America’s true commitment to the region will surely follow. Countries party to the agreement, such Japan, and countries that have indicated interest in joining, such as Korea, would have to look elsewhere for more liberalized trade arrangements. Seoul and Tokyo, in fact, are currently in negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as well as a trilateral free trade agreement with China.

Beyond TPP, Clinton will likely seek to further most of Obama’s policies in Asia, including a strong U.S.-Japan relationship, which under President Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is arguably closer and more integrated than ever before. American policy towards Japan has been bipartisan for decades, and with the challenges posed by China and shared interests by Washington and Tokyo across a range of issues, the relationship under a Clinton presidency will likely remain robust.

A recent report, “The U.S.-Japan Alliance to 2030: Power and Principle,” by key figures from both countries (with Americans representing both parties), lays out a vision for the relationship, one that likely will align with the views of a Clinton Administration. Most important, the report calls for a more coordinated China policy with stronger combined military capabilities and more effective counters to Chinese aggression in the East and South China Seas. The report recommends effective use of the Alliance Coordination Mechanism, updated command and control mechanisms, enhanced interoperability, and promotion of defense industrial cooperation. It also calls for greater collaboration in addressing problems on the Korean peninsula, assisting Southeast Asia, dealing with challenges of climate change and cybersecurity, and enhancing cooperation with Korea, Australia, and India.

On North Korea, Clinton would also be apt to hew closely to Obama’s approach of seeking stronger sanctions while leaving the door open to negotiations. Clinton has embraced the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea — supported operationally by Japan. Indeed, she has been a staunch advocate of strengthened Japan-ROK ties generally. As Kurt Campbell, Clinton’s top Asia official in the State Department and one of her closest campaign aides, recently said, “Probably the most important thing that the United States can do in Asia is to encourage — strongly — better relations between Japan and South Korea.”

Though Clinton’s views on Russia parallel those of the Obama administration, there may be a higher chance that Japan and Russia will conclude an agreement over disputed territories and move toward closer relations during the next administration. The subject came up when Abe met Clinton on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last month — a meeting perhaps betraying Abe’s preferences in the election and belying a long tradition of Japanese leaders preferring Republican presidents. Campbell, who sat in on the meeting, noted that Clinton responded to Abe’s description of his rationale for forging closer ties with Russia by saying, “I accept that strategic wisdom.” Given Donald Trump’s call for closer U.S.-Russia relations, any such developments under a Trump administration would likely be welcomed even more fully.

Clinton’s close relationship with Abe has developed over the years. In 2014, for example, Abe participated in the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting, holding a public conversation with Clinton on women’s issues. Close personal Clinton-Abe ties would likely be mirrored by a strong Clinton relationship with ROK President Park Geun-hye, in part because the two would share the distinction of having become their countries’’ first female leaders.

Campbell, along with Joseph Nye, heads up a group providing advice to the Clinton campaign on Asia, many of whose members served in the Obama administration. The continuity in policies toward Japan and Korea that can be expected of Clinton following Obama will be furthered by continuity in key personnel across the two administrations.

In contrast to Clinton, Trump would offer a major departure on foreign policy from Obama — and from Republican administrations going back decades. That said, many of Trump’s positions echo those of Republican Sen. Robert Taft, who ran unsuccessfully for his party’s nomination in 1940, 1948, and 1952. Taft was an isolationist, opposed trade liberalization, and argued against alliances such as NATO. However, those views largely disappeared from the party with the 1952 election of Dwight Eisenhower, an advocate of an internationalist foreign policy.

Trump’s statements, actions, and positions have led to a string of denunciations by the Republican foreign policy establishment. In addition to his fitness to serve, these criticisms have focused on his rejection of TPP and his apparent willingness to gamble on inciting trade wars, abrogating alliances, and supporting nuclear proliferation. While seemingly unperturbed by China’s aggressive actions in the East and South China Seas, Trump has taken a hard line on trade with Beijing, saying he would impose 45 percent tariffs on the country’s imports in response to alleged currency manipulation.

Trump has taken a similarly hard line on allies such as Japan and South Korea shouldering more of the costs of U.S. bases they host, and in Japan’s case, more of the operational burdens of the alliance. In June, Trump said, “I want these countries to pay for protection… We’re talking about ultimately trillions of dollars over a period of time.” His comments mirror those expressed 30 years ago in full page advertisements in major newspapers: “It’s time for us to end our vast deficits by making Japan and others who can afford it pay… For decades, Japan and other nations have been taking advantage of the United States.”

Last month, Trump expanded on these long-held views: “You know we have a treaty with Japan where if Japan is attacked, we have to use the full force and might of the United States. If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do anything.” He went on to note, “It could be that Japan will have to defend itself against North Korea. You always have to be prepared to walk.”

Since March 2016, Trump has repeatedly suggested that Japan and Korea develop nuclear weapons, including at a CNN town hall, where he declared, “I hate nuclear proliferation, but the world would be better off if South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia had nuclear weapons.” In other controversial comments about Korea, Trump has suggested that he might withdraw U.S. troops unless Seoul contributes more, and that he would be willing to host North Korea’s leader in the United States for talks.  

If Trump were elected president, how closely would his policies as implemented reflect his campaign views? On TPP, unless Congress passes legislation before Trump takes office, he could easily ensure its failure. On tariff increases on China, Congress would ultimately have to agree — and hence be willing to risk a trade war between the world’s two largest economies. The military and foreign policy establishment would oppose abrogating U.S. alliances with Japan and Korea even if either failed to provide greater host nation support; he would face even greater opposition to encouraging Japan and Korea to go nuclear.

Installing personnel to execute Trump’s most controversial policies could prove a particular challenge since none of his advisors on Asia have notable expertise, and all senior officials, aside from White House appointments, require Senate approval. In recent years, that effectively has meant 60 votes out of 100. The same supermajority would be required for passage of any significant bills, thus severely limiting Trump’s ability to make major changes to existing laws and policies through legislation. Opposition within the bureaucracy to drastic breaks in Japan and Korea policy could also impede implementation, especially before senior appointed officials take office. Indeed, if Trump were to seek to follow through on a number of his foreign policy promises, the result could be a new level of gridlock in Washington. The result would likely be a drastically weakened United States and the possible collapse of the U.S.-led international order—with all the uncertainty and potential problems that would unleash.  

Daniel Bob is a Senior Fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.