Amer­ica can’t turn its back on the Asia-Pacific

The Myanmar Times - - Views - YOICHI FUNABASHI CHUNG MIN LEE news­room@mm­times.com

AS the world watches the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion with be­wil­der­ment and un­ease, Amer­ica’s al­lies in Asia are par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about the pos­si­bil­ity of US dis­en­gage­ment from the re­gion. In Ja­pan and South Korea – Amer­ica’s most im­por­tant al­lies in the Asia-Pacific – the rise of Don­ald Trump, along with in­ward-look­ing rhetoric from oth­ers across the US po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, has been seen as an in­di­ca­tion of a broader shift in public sen­ti­ment. Tokyo and Seoul fear that many Amer­i­cans believe with­drawal from in­ter­na­tional al­liances and in­sti­tu­tions can, to use Trump’s for­mu­la­tion, “make Amer­ica great again”.

Iso­la­tion­ism and pro­tec­tion­ism took a firm hold on US pol­i­tics dur­ing the pri­maries. In his for­eign pol­icy speeches, Trump de­clared that “Amer­ica First” would be the over­rid­ing theme of his ad­min­is­tra­tion, and the Asia-Pacific doesn’t ap­pear to reg­is­ter in his world­view at all. But a US with­drawal or fun­da­men­tally re­duced US mil­i­tary pres­ence in Asia would not only un­der­mine re­gional security; it would also ul­ti­mately weaken the United States at home and abroad.

While Trump is right to ques­tion whether many US al­lies are es­sen­tially free-rid­ers, this can’t be said of ei­ther Ja­pan or South Korea. As the world’s third- and 11th-largest economies, re­spec­tively, Ja­pan and South Korea as­sume a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the cost of sta­tion­ing US forces within their bor­ders. Ja­pan pays about US$4.5 bil­lion a year in base-re­lated ex­penses, while South Korea con­trib­utes about $870 mil­lion – 75 per­cent and 40pc of the to­tal costs, re­spec­tively. For the United States, it is cheaper to sta­tion troops in these Asian na­tions than it would be to house them at home. Equally im­por­tant, these two al­lies are ma­jor mar­kets for US arms ex­ports. Ac­cord­ing to the Stockholm In­ter­na­tional Peace Re­search In­sti­tute, from 2014 to 2015 Ja­pan im­ported $741 mil­lion and South Korea $470 mil­lion worth of arms from the United States.

So how do Ja­pan and South Korea make the United States strong? First and fore­most, through al­liances that demon­strate the im­por­tance of shared demo­cratic val­ues, in­ter­op­er­a­ble mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties and deep eco­nomic link­ages. Ab­sent part­ner­ships with Ja­pan and South Korea, not to men­tion Aus­tralia, the United States would have no real pres­ence across the Asia-Pacific. In such an in­stance, China would quickly move to fill the vac­uum and es­tab­lish its own Sino-cen­tric or­der.

Sec­ond, both Ja­pan and South Korea have been ex­em­plary part­ners in the fight against nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion. In­deed, while Trump has sug­gested that Tokyo and Seoul should consider their own nu­clear op­tions in the face of a nu­cle­arised North Korea, the best way to counter Py­ongyang is through ro­bust al­liances with the United States, in­clud­ing an iron­clad nu­clear um­brella. En­tic­ing as it may seem, a nu­clear South Korea and Ja­pan would trig­ger a re­gional nu­clear arms race, crip­ple their al­liances with the United States, and lead to a much more ag­gres­sive China and Rus­sia.

Third, Ja­pan and South Korea are both com­mit­ted to fos­ter­ing free trade and the rules-based lib­eral in­ter­na­tional or­der that the United States cre­ated and ben­e­fits from the most. Po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates from both the Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic par­ties have con­vinced the public that the Tran­sPa­cific Part­ner­ship would hurt the US econ­omy, when in re­al­ity the United States would gain the most from the agree­ment, with an­a­lysts es­ti­mat­ing that real in­comes would in­crease by $131 bil­lion and an­nual ex­ports by $357 bil­lion. The TPP would al­low the United States to con­tinue to set the rules of the road on trade, rather than be­ing sub­jected to a regime de­signed by an­other coun­try.

Of course, we don’t re­ally know how Trump would ap­proach Asia in the White House. As pres­i­dent, Trump says un­pre­dictabil­ity would be his se­cret weapon – rather than telling al­lies and ad­ver­saries what the United States would do in a given situation, he hopes to gain the up­per hand by keep­ing them guess­ing. On the face of it, Trump is com­bat­ing what po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Stephen Walt called a “cred­i­bil­ity ad­dic­tion” that can leave the United States en­tan­gled in costly wars just to reaf­firm its re­solve. The United States has made mis­takes, but cred­i­bil­ity is vi­tal in a world of uncer­tainty – es­pe­cially in Asia. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has demon­strated that cred­i­bil­ity need not be pur­chased through force; it can come from ar­tic­u­lat­ing clear strate­gies that give other na­tions con­fi­dence the United States will fol­low through.

Even if Trump loses in Novem­ber, Ja­pan and South Korea must wake to the neg­a­tive long-term im­pact that his cam­paign could have on Amer­ica’s pol­i­tics. His­tory of­fers a les­son as to what their re­sponse should be. After the Viet­nam War ended in 1975, then­pres­i­den­tial-can­di­date Jimmy Carter called for a to­tal pull­out of US troops from the Korean Penin­sula. Ac­knowl­edg­ing a shared fear of US dis­en­gage­ment from the re­gion, and de­spite rocky re­la­tions in the years prior to the pro­posal, Ja­pan and South Korea co­op­er­ated on op­pos­ing the plan, and their joint ef­forts were suc­cess­ful. Like­wise to­day, Tokyo and Seoul’s priority should be to build on last year’s thaw in ties by sched­ul­ing a first full state visit and bi­lat­eral sum­mit be­tween Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe and South Korean Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has made clear that the United States’ des­tiny is in­sep­a­ra­bly tied to the Asia-Pacific, but the tone of the cur­rent elec­tion may ren­der a postObama “re­bal­ance to Asia” un­ten­able. Ja­pan and South Korea can­not as­sume that the United States will make the ra­tio­nal choice of plac­ing its bets on Asia as the dom­i­nant re­gion of eco­nomic growth in the 21st cen­tury. As the linch­pins of the US al­liance in the Asia-Pacific, Ja­pan and South Korea will need to work to­gether to con­vince pol­i­cy­mak­ers in the United States that an Amer­ica First pol­icy would re­sult only in what Trump might call a “tremen­dous” loss – for the United States, its clos­est al­lies and the world.

– The Washington Post

Yoichi Funabashi is chair of the Re­build Ja­pan Ini­tia­tive. Chung Min Lee is a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Yon­sei Univer­sity in Seoul and a non­res­i­dent se­nior as­so­ciate at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace.

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