Donald Trump on Asia



One ritual of presidential campaigns is attempting to demonstrate seriousness through in-depth interviews with the editorial teams of major newspapers. Donald Trump is no exception. His interview with the Washington Post got attention because of his announcement of a small—and relatively unknown—foreign policy team. But he also rolled out isolationist themes on which he has doubled down in recent days. His interview with David Sanger and Maggie Haberman at the New York Timescentered to a surprising extent on Asia, which he revisited in a a second interview at the Post with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. We focus on his comments on the region, which provide a microcosm on his worldview.

The main takeaway is that an America in decline needs to adopt a much more minimalist foreign policy. He casts doubt on the value of the alliances with Japan and Korea and seems indifferent to the development of nuclear weapons by them. In addition to his long-standing skepticism about open trade and investment with the region–a cornerstone of US grand strategy toward Asia–he also believes that access to the American market can be used as a weapon to solve outstanding problems with China, including in the South China Sea. In short, he seeks nothing less than a complete reversal of the political, military and economic pillars that have undergirded US strategy toward the region.

The Core: American Overextension, Decline and the Role of Globalization

As Trump’s signature slogan suggests (“make America great again”), he sees American foreign policy in the context of economic decline and overextension. “We’re not a rich country. We were a rich country with a very strong military and tremendous capability in so many ways. We’re not anymore.”

The reasons for decline and overextension are partly economic, partly strategic. Asked a question about Xi Jinping, Trump noted that China’s slowdown should not be exaggerated. Moreover, he quickly linked China’s performance in a zero-sum way with the decline in employment and manufacturing in the US, a position that has once again gained credibility among economists with the work of David Autor, David Dorn and my colleague Gordon Hanson. Trump’s declinist view of the US is also linked to the costs of past interventions. He speaks admiringly of George H.W. Bush’s in-and-out Gulf War and has been an open critic of the “quicksand” of George W. Bush’s wars; the interview is scathing on Iraq.

The implication: “I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First.’…We have been disrespected, mocked, and ripped off for many many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher.”


A central conclusion from this analysis is that American alliances need fundamental rethinking. For Trump, these alliances are read through the lens of burden-sharing and moral hazard problems. The changes Trump entertains are sweeping and each time he speaks on the issue, they become more radical. NATO, for example. is deemed “obsolete” in the Times interview, where he suggests that the US should reconsider specific alliance commitments, such as to the defense of the Baltics. In a speech ahead of the Wisconsin primary, he said that “it’s possible we’re going to have  to let NATO go,” an idea that was quickly endorsed by Pat Buchanan and David Stockman in anti-European rants.

The comments of most interest to this blog center on Japan and Korea. According to Trump, the alliance with Japan is “one-sided,” committing us to defend Japan but not obligating them in return. This claim is less true under the Abe government and particularly following the Cabinet reinterpretation of Article IX of the constitution in 2014. But Trump’s concerns appear primarily economic rather than strategic. Despite the fact that Japan spends about $2 billion a year to defray the cost of US troops in the country—a level to which the partners are committed over the next four years—Trump would like to see more Korean and Japanese defense spending (currently at about 2.5 and 1 percent of GDP respectively) and particularly more direct payments to the US.

Under the current Special Measures Agreement on burden-sharing with the ROK (2014-2018), South Korea raised its contributions to $867 million—about a 6% increase—with promises of cost adjustments in out years (see The Diplomat for an overview). When called out on these agreements, he claimed that the two Northeast Asian allies still pay “far less than it costs us,” which is impossible to assess in the absence of the security returns.

How much should the US pay? And what value does the US get from its alliances. The following exchange with Charles Lane from the Washington Post interview supplies the answer. Lane begins by challenging Trump on the share of support provided by the allies:

LANE:  You know, well, they say and I think this is on public record, it’s basically 50 percent of the non-personnel cost is paid by South Korea and Japan.

TRUMP: 50 percent?

LANE: Yeah.

TRUMP: Why isn’t it 100 percent?

HIATT: Well I guess the question is, does the United States gain anything by having bases?

TRUMP: Personally I don’t think so. I personally don’t think so…

HIATT: So you don’t think the US gains from being the force that sort of that helps keep the peace in the Pacific?

TRUMP: I think that we are not in the position that we used to be. I think we were a very powerful, very wealthy country. And we’re a poor country now.

If we get no value from them, why not withdraw? Trump is not afraid of doubling down and said that perhaps we should (“not happily,” but nonetheless). As with many of Trump’s claims, it appears that such a move is conceived as just a play in a never-ending bargaining game, in this case seeking greater Japanese and South Korean contributions. Nonetheless, the casual treatment of alliance commitments quickly got picked up in the South Korean press, with critical treatment running all the way fromHankyoreh on the left to the Chosun Ilbo on the right (see the NKNews summary here; Ambassador Lippert’s defense of the alliances here, including a discussion of the cost-sharing issues).

Nuclear Weapons

Throughout the interview, Trump repeatedly expresses concern about the destructiveness of nuclear weapons; it is clearly a personal concern. Nonetheless, he is willing to let the two countries go nuclear, a position on which he subsequently doubled down in a town hall meeting moderated by Anderson Cooper.

Although not fully elaborated, Trump’s stance appears to rest on his belief that North Korea could actually use its weapons. As a result, Japan and South Korea having them could be (in my language, not his) stabilizing rather than destabilizing (“And, would I rather have North Korea have them with Japan sitting there having them also? You may very well be better off if that’s the case.”) Later, he added an altogether different rationale: that we should let Japan handle North Korea if war were to break out. In another Wisconsin speech on Saturday, he said that nuclear conflict between Japan “would be a terrible thing but if they do, they do.” Good luck,” he added. “Enjoy yourself, folks.”

Mark Fitzpatrick has published an outstanding overview of the issue (Asia’s Latent Nuclear Powers: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan), and concludes—as most would—that a nuclear Japan and/or South Korea is not likely but also not likely to be stabilizing if it did occur.Victor Cha piles on with a recent op-ed for Joongang Ilbo. Among other risks, supporting proliferation cuts directly against US interests with respect to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, including particularly with respect to North Korea itself. And this is quite apart from the issues such a risk would take with respect to the US-China relationship. It did not take long for the issue to be picked up by the South Korean fringe seeking to pursue the nuclear option and President Obama himself finally felt it necessary to mitigate the damage with an articulate defense of American involvement in the region.

Dealing with China: Using Trade for Foreign Policy Purposes

Trump was asked specifically about the South China Sea. Although decrying Chinese actions, he again pivoted back to the fact that Japan and the region are free-riding (“you have to speak to Japan and other countries, because they’re affected far greater than we are”) and the inequities in the US-China relationship.

A continual theme of Trump’s—and not entirely wrong—is that the US has played a central role in China’s rise; Thomas Christensen makes this simple point in his recent The China Challenge. But rather than using this point to assure Beijing, Trump emphasizes the tilted playing field in order tochallenge China. According to Trump, this very iniquity provides an opportunity to use economic leverage to solve both economic and broader strategic problems. Trump never considers the simple question of whether China might find it’s own way to retaliate were a trade war to erupt. Free traders have written long rebuttals with titles like “why everything Trump says about China is wrong” (for example, here and here). We don’t need to recite the benefits an open economic order has provided to US security and economic interests; President Obama was articulate on the point in the clip linked above. But the appeal to his base on trade and offshoring issues is pretty obvious. And the political damage is also real. As Hillary Clinton is pulled left on trade issues by both Sanders and Trump, the real accomplishments of the Obama administration—most notably ratification of the TPP—are placed at serious risk.

Trump on North Korea

Finally, the interview in the Times makes some specific claims on North Korea. Despite a long critical exegesis by Politifact of the claim that China has “total control” over North Korea, Trump sticks to his guns. But he also links North Korea to Iran, arguing it is Pyongyang’s number one trading partner. Sanger quickly learns how evasive Trump is:

SANGER: Mr. Trump with all due respect, I think it’s China that’s the No. 1 trading partner with North Korea.

TRUMP: I’ve heard that certainly, but I’ve also heard from other sources that it’s Iran.

SANGER: Iran is a major arms exchanger with…

TRUMP: Well that is true but I’ve heard it both ways. They are certainly major arms exchangers…part of [the Iran] deal should have been that Iran would help us with North Korea. So, the bottom line is, I think that frankly, as long as North Korea’s there, I think that Japan having a [nuclear] capability is something that maybe is going to happen whether we like it or not.

In Sum

A thoughtful group of “realist minimalists,” such as Barry Posen at MIT, have articulated a carefully crafted vision of US policy that would pull back from our overseas commitments while maintaining mastery through control of the commons (a review of his book, Restraint, can be found here and here). But Trump’s interviews are surprising in the limited space he gives to the rebuilding of the military, noting it only in passing and with little conviction or detail.

Trump’s vision not only cuts against the grain of the Republican establishment but is anathema to the “lean forward” multilateralist wing of the Democratic party, of which Hillary Clinton is exemplary, as well. The casual nature of his approach to American commitments is stunning; everything is continually up for negotiation. We can do little better than cite our colleague Dan Pinkston at NKNews: “a collapse of the East Asian security architecture without a credible and stable alternative, nuclear proliferation and a worsening arms race in East Asia do not serve U.S. security interests let alone the world’s.” Amen.

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