Memo to President-elect Trump: Beware of the experts on East Asia’s chessboard

Special to

DonKirk31By Donald Kirk

The process of “making America great again” is filled with perils and pitfalls, nowhere more so than in Asia.

The intricacies and subtleties of the Great Game for Asia often are about as incomprehensible to the experts as they are to amateurs and know-nothings. As President-elect Donald Trump and his team plunge into the Game, can or will they do away with decades of efforts at “understanding” by U.S. diplomats and intelligence analysts?

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Abe at a meeting in March at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in The Hague. / AFP / Getty Images
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Abe at a meeting in March at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in The Hague. / AFP / Getty Images

Trump has said he’s firmly committed to the defense of America’s friends and allies but equally committed to dumping the Trans-Pacific Partnership that President Obama made a pillar in his Asian “pivot.”

TPP would have placed the U.S. at the forefront of a dozen countries banded together in the quest for the vast potential of the Asian market. U.S. leadership of the TPP would have given the U.S. a certain leverage while China also competes with its own trading arrangements.

Without TPP, Trump may prefer to strengthen the U.S. military commitment to a vast region in which the U.S. and China may come to blows anywhere from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea to the East China Sea to North Korea and the Yellow Sea.

The confrontation may deepen if Trump, having jettisoned TPP, gets tough as promised on the enormous trade imbalance between the U.S. and China.

Will Trump really impose the protective tariffs that he talked about in his tumultuous campaign? And might he also try to redress imbalances with America’s two Northeast Asian allies, South Korea and Japan?

China would love to see the U.S. at odds with both of them while doing nothing to force Kim Jong-Un to abandon the North’s nuclear program.

U.S. power in the region rests on U.S. air, naval and ground forces based in Japan and Korea as well as Guam, a U.S. territory.

What if Trump also presses demands for Korea and Japan to pay a much higher percentage of the costs of keeping U.S. forces on their soil? It’s fine for Trump to say these countries can foot the bill for their own defense, but they say they’re paying enough already.

And what if Trump then scales down the U.S. commitment while also calling for greater access to the Korean and Japanese markets?

Such confrontations may deepen as North Korea develops missiles capable of delivering warheads to targets all over the region – and to the U.S. What should be the U.S. response?

It’s not out of the question that Trump would propose negotiations with Kim Jong-Un, whom he has said he would like to meet.

At the other end of the scale, Trump could threaten military force against the North. A nuclear strike appears unlikely, but he might order U.S. warplanes to destroy North Korean missile and nuclear facilities – a move that could precipitate a second Korean War if not a much broader Pacific War.

One person who may have no notion what to do about North Korea is Donald Trump.

After getting rid of TPP, is Trump ready to stand up to Chinese power anywhere, including North Korea?

Complicating the standoff, the U.S. has to deal with domestic political strife in South Korea. China no doubt is encouraging anti-American dissent in countries around its periphery while North Korea exploits divisions that are sapping the strength and resolve of the South.

Trump also faces serious problems in the Philippines, whose president, Rodrigo Duterte, has just about disavowed the historic U.S. alliance while currying favor with China’s President Xi Jinping.

The Philippine Senate in 1991 refused to renew the agreement under which the U.S. had two of its largest foreign bases – the naval base at Subic and Clark Air Base in Angeles City. Now Duterte is saying he doesn’t want any American troops at all in his country, including a small team aiding Philippine forces against Islamic guerrillas.

An Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the U.S. may be dead, and U.S. warships may no longer be able to dock at Subic while challenging China in the South China Sea..

Duterte has also said he would like to get along with Trump after having denounced Obama for criticizing his war against drugs in which Philippine police and vigilantes have killed several thousand people. Might Duterte find in Trump a likely soul mate?

Trump has already bonded with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a long conversation in Trump Tower in New York in which they reaffirmed the U.S.-Japan alliance.

This week, Japan and South Korea agreed to share intelligence information – a controversial deal that the U.S. sees as uniting its allies against China and North Korea. The U.S. next year is to introduce on Korean soil a missile battery for THAAD – Terminal High Altitude Area Defense against high-flying North Korean missiles.

Trump has a lot to learn about Asia very quickly. All these deals strike at deep-seated nationalist sensitivities. The Trump people have the advantage of bringing fresh eyes to old problems. Then again, they may be in for some rude awakenings.

Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at [email protected]