PHILADELPHIA – Now that Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton have won their respective party’s nomination for November’s presidential election, security experts are assessing which of them would be a better choice for Japan and other U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region.
At this point, Clinton, a former secretary of state, appears to have an edge over Trump, a business mogul and political outsider, given her deep understanding of the importance of alliances.
Trump’s threat to pull U.S. forces out of Japan and South Korea unless they contribute more to the costs of their defense makes U.S. allies “nervous” and gets China, North Korea and Russia — countries that apparently do not wish to see firmer U.S. engagement in the region — “excited,” according to some of the experts.
“To American allies, Mr. Trump sounds like a Mafia boss, not a global leader, who says ‘Pay your due, then I will protect you,’ ” said Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank. “Countries such as North Korea, China and Russia are happy with Mr. Trump because they don’t have to pay anything.”
Such a posture — including the GOP nominee’s controversial remarks about allowing Tokyo and Seoul to go nuclear for self-defense if U.S. troops are withdrawn — would undermine U.S. deterrence capabilities and presence in the region in the face of Beijing’s rising assertiveness and Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development. It could also prompt Taiwan to pursue a nuclear deterrent against China.
“There are already a lot of confusing projections about it,” Lee said, wondering how Trump, if elected, will deal with U.S. allies in Asia, especially as China flexes its muscles in pressing its territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea and North Korea conducts nuclear tests and missile launches in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“One scenario is that North Korea will feel freer to pursue nuclear weapons and this will destabilize the region, and spark a ‘nuclear domino effect’ as other countries may be tempted to arm themselves with nuclear weapons,” he said.
Trump’s rhetoric, his supporters say, is merely a starting position for negotiations with U.S. allies — which Trump called “the countries that we are protecting, at a massive cost to us” — to “pay their fair share.”
But the problem is that “Mr. Trump doesn’t know the facts of these relationships nor appreciates the degree to which statements alone do great damage to U.S. credibility and leadership in the world,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank.
The Washington Post similarly questions Trump’s foreign and security policy credentials, saying he offers “a series of prejudices and gut feelings, most of them erroneous.”
“In fact, Japan and South Korea are major contributors to an alliance that has preserved a peace of enormous benefit to Americans,” the paper said in an editorial published July 24.
In contrast Clinton, who, as President Barack Obama’s top diplomat during his first term, promoted a U.S. strategic “rebalance” to Asia to counter the rise of China, is “rock-solid committed” to U.S. treaty alliances in Asia and other parts of the world.
“She will maintain those commitments the same way that Democratic and Republican presidents have for decades — on the basis of the premise that this is in America’s interest, it’s in the interest of our allies, and it’s in the interest of global stability and prosperity,” Jake Sullivan, a senior policy adviser for Clinton’s presidential campaign, told journalists on the sidelines of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia that ended Thursday.
Asked about Trump’s threat to abandon U.S. commitments to the defense of allies unless they pay what he sees as their fair share, Sullivan said, “This is a source of great concern for the American people who have been committed to these alliances for decades … And I think it is a gift to those who would challenge the United States or those who would choose to be our adversaries.”
Comparing the positions of the two candidates, Glosserman said, “It should be clear that Ms. Clinton, in my view, has views that are better for U.S. alliances … Mr. Trump wants to engage the world, but solely on his terms.”
Supporting his assessment, a recent multinational poll found Clinton is seen to excel Trump in the ability to manage international affairs, with 79 percent in Germany and 70 percent each in Japan and Australia expressing confidence in Clinton.
In contrast, 92 percent in Sweden, 87 percent in Australia and 82 percent in Japan have no confidence in Trump’s diplomatic skills, according to the poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank.
Views of Trump among the Chinese are mixed, with 22 percent saying they have confidence in him, 40 percent saying they do not have confidence and 39 percent with no opinion. Similarly divided, 37 percent in China say they have confidence in Clinton, 35 percent say they do not have confidence and 28 percent have no opinion.
“Beijing is not happy with Ms. Clinton, seeing her as the source of much of the unrest and difficulty that China has faced,” Glosserman said, citing her hard-line stance on China in the South China Sea issue, which also involves the Philippines, Vietnam and other smaller neighbors of China.
Clinton angered China in 2010 by affirming that the Senkaku Islands, a group of East China Sea islets administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing and Taiwan, are covered by the Japan-U.S. security treaty.
“Any policy that would unravel or unsettle U.S. alliances in Asia is good for China, so they probably like the Trump positions,” Glosserman said.