Next month, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit will take place in Brussels, bringing together the heads of state or government of 51 European and Asian countries. In preparation for the meeting, the allies of the United States should jointly develop a bargaining strategy vis-a-vis Washington.
At the press conference after the NATO summit in Brussels this July, U.S. President Donald Trump asserted that he “probably can” pull the United States out of NATO without Congress’s explicit support and approval, although “that’s unnecessary.” Asian allies of the United States share the same concerns as the Europeans about the aggressive pursuit of burden-sharing by the U.S. president and the implications of the transatlantic discord on Russia’s future behavior. They do, however, have more important reasons to worry about Trump’s NATO policy and to cooperate with Europeans.
Crucially, U.S. alliances in Asia have been traditionally lower in the hierarchy of U.S. alliances than NATO, and Asian states are more dependent on the United States for their security than their European counterparts because of China’s rise. To counter Trump’s approach, Asian allies must seek more meaningful collaboration with NATO while also strengthening cooperation among themselves.
Trump’s contemptuous attitude toward U.S. alliances is hardly limited to the transatlantic relationship, but his trashing of NATO may have a particular significance. NATO is widely considered to be the most successful military alliance in the world, and how the United States treats it is closely monitored by Washington’s friends and foes alike. If Trump is willing to destroy as successful an alliance as NATO, what does it say about his willingness to maintain other U.S. alliances? Many analysts expressed concerns about the NATO summit’s effects on European security, not least because of Trump’s subsequent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. The U.S. reputation as an ally, however, matters to all of the more than 60 countries the United States currently protects through formal alliance ties.
Despite Trump’s (and consequently, the mass media’s) fixation on the defense expenditures of NATO members, Europeans have fewer reasons to worry about their spending than Asians. The balance of power is in favor of U.S. allies in Europe, but not in Asia. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s estimates, Russia’s military expenditure in 2017 was $66 billion, not much more than that of France ($58 billion) or Germany ($44 billion). In contrast, China’s military expenditure in 2017 was $228 billion, 2.7 times larger than the sum of Japanese ($45 billion) and South Korean ($39 billion) expenditures. As Russia spends a higher percentage of its gross domestic product on its military (4.3 percent in 2017) than China (1.9 percent), this contrast is even starker when we think about the latent capabilities of these states.
Furthermore, Japan and South Korea do not possess nuclear weapons, while NATO has two non-U.S. members with nuclear arsenals, the United Kingdom and France. Whereas NATO allies, if they try, can balance against Russia’s military capabilities without the United States, Asian allies would be hard pressed to counter Chinese power on their own. As we have seen in Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea, however, there is much to worry about the future of U.S. alliances in Asia.
What, then, can the allies of the United States in Asia and Europe do to cope with the risk Trump presents to them? They all have tried flattering him, but the results have been disappointing. They have therefore moved toward intraregional cooperation to reduce their vulnerabilities. Unsure of U.S. security commitment, Asian countries are seeking informal security partnerships among themselves and reconsidering nuclear weapons. In Europe too, many — like German Chancellor Angela Merkel — opine that they can no longer depend on the United States, and “Europe needs to take its fate into its own hands.” Indeed, European efforts at strategic autonomy have intensified. Exiting U.S. alliance networks would be disastrous for the allies, but preparing against abandonment by the United States improves their bargaining positions while simultaneously satisfying long-time demands of Washington to reduce their dependence on the United States.
Another promising path for the Asian and European allies is inter-regional cooperation to fight back against the current trend in U.S. alliance policy. Granted, geographic distance between the two regions makes their cooperation militarily less important, and they are also in a competitive relationship in terms of U.S. military resources. They do, however, share strong interests in maintaining the liberal international order, the “deep engagement” of the United States in the world’s security affairs, and the U.S. reputation as a protector of its allies — foreign policy goals no longer shared by the U.S. president.
Thus, Asian and European allies of the United States should more actively support one another vis-à-vis China and Russia, be it on China’s maritime territorial disputes or the fate of Ukraine. They should furthermore establish a common front in their dealings with Trump to strengthen their bargaining positions. Fortunately, they already have significant institutional connections for inter-regional cooperation. For instance, in May this year, the North Atlantic Council officially accepted the establishment of Japan’s permanent mission to NATO. Also, following South Korea’s precedent, Japan in July signed an economic partnership agreement and a strategic partnership agreement with the European Union, most of whose members are part of NATO.
Although expanding defense commitment would be unrealistic for either Asian or European allies at this point, there are other important areas of cooperation. For instance, in addition to accelerating their functional cooperation in cyber and maritime security, they should develop cooperative initiatives on military procurement for bargaining with the United States. Given the explicit link Trump has made between economic and military policies, the allies would be wise to coordinate their economic policy as well. The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit next month would be a great venue for public relations of their cooperation.
Trump recently called the EU a “foe,” and he is clearly not a good friend of U.S. allies. As friends of the United States, the allies have much work to do to make America’s alliances great again.
Tongfi Kim is an assistant professor of international affairs at Vesalius College and a senior researcher at the KF-VUB Korea Chair in Brussels, Belgium. He specializes in military alliances, and he is the author of The Supply Side of Security: A Market Theory of Military Alliances.