'His unpredictability is worrisome': Donald Trump is affecting US military relationships in Asia

In March this year, Donald Trump broached his willingness to let Japan and South Korea develop their own nuclear weapons in lieu of relying on US nuclear protection.

In that same interview, he said he would be willing to remove US troops from both of those countries if they didn’t do more to cover the costs of keeping those troops there — “Not happily, but the answer is yes,” Trump said.

Those answers related only to two countries in Asia, but Trump’s stances on foreign policy — which he has characterised as “America first” — appear to have influenced US relationships in the region, and cleavages within the American electorate that Trump has exposed suggest that the US’s long-time commitment to engagement in Asia may be weaken.

“His position is causing anxiety, especially in East Asia,” a senior lawmaker in Japan’s ruling coalition told Reuters in May. Trump has flagged changes to cost-sharing deals with other US allies in the region, saying that countries like Japan and South Korea should pay more for their own defence.

“It is a serious concern, and may lead to Chinese pre-eminence in Asia far sooner than expected,” Dhruva Jaishankar, a specialist on India-US ties at Brookings India, told Reuters.

Trump has characterised the US defence commitment to Japan specifically as unfair, and that country has already upped defence spending and reinterpreted its constitution to allow it to render military aid to other countries even if Japan is not directly attacked.

Trump has also committed to push South Korea to pay for “the full cost of the security guarantees provided by the US,” though it’s possible that, like many of his suggestions, are opening bids for negotiations.

In any case, Trump’s stated proposals would introduce greater economic and geopolitical risk to the Korean Peninsula.

General Atomics MQ-1 Predator DroneTSgt Effrain LopezA Predator drone.

More recently, in the face of a potential Trump-led US pullback from Asia, India appears eager to wrap up defence deals with the US prior to the departure of Barack Obama, who as president has mounted a pivot to Asia that has had mixed success.

India requested 22 Predator drones in June, and Reuters reports that deal is in the advanced stages, with both countries hoping to leave only administrative details for the next administration to conclude.

The US and India have also cooperated on the latter country’s first aircraft carrier, with the US offering to share technology being used in its own flattops, which could allow the Asian nation to jump ahead technologically by a generation.

“They have already started helping us on our first indigenous carrier, in terms of certification, quality testing,” an Indian government official told Reuters. “The challenge will be to sustain the momentum over the next decade.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi set up a research group this summer to study ways to work with Trump, and Indian groups in the US have tried to engage with both presidential campaigns.

Some Indians with ties to Modi’s party have expressed more comfort with Hillary Clinton, and the closeness of the presidential race, coupled with Trump’s wide-ranging rhetoric on US foreign policy, stirs unease in Asia as Election Day approaches.

“On the one hand, he says he values business relations with India, but then mimics Indian call-center workers and disregards the competitiveness that a partnership with India could provide the US,” Manoj Ladwa, a London-based political strategist who served as communications director for Modi’s 2014 campaign, told Reuters.

“His unpredictability is worrisome in a world that requires steady and mature statesmanship.”

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