Even old adversaries, like Vietnam, now discuss the possibility of welcoming American naval visits to Cam Ranh Bay. The two countries have also agreed to expand defence trade and joint military operations. Meanwhile, American troops are due to rotate through the Philippines’ military bases — a colony that banished the US Navy from Subic Bay nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Yet as these countries inch closer to Washington, they also express doubts over America’s staying power in Asia. And while they deliver forceful rhetorical rebuttals of Chinese activities in the South China Sea, not one US ally has decided to follow Washington in conducting a freedom of navigation exercise within the 12 nautical mile zone around these territories.
Into this already febrile strategic environment has come a second, no less turbulent force: the decades’ old spectre of a US withdrawal from Asia. Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has expressed a desire to virtually overturn America’s postwar regional ‘hub and spokes’ alliance system.
In interviews with the Washington Post and the New York Times, Trump spoke about his willingness to reconsider America’s alliances with both Japan and South Korea if they did not increase their financial contributions to the cost of feeding and housing US troops stationed there. He foreshadowed not only a complete drawdown of these garrisons but even suggested that both Seoul and Tokyo also consider developing their own nuclear weapons.
These events have caused significant doubts about both China’s long term intentions and the future of the US ‘pivot’ to Asia.
In the case of the South China Sea, Washington’s allies face a dilemma. Nervous about Beijing’s attempts to skim influence from the United States in the region, many are eager to see a reaffirmation of American commitment to Asian security. But few are ready to do anything to oppose Chinese adventurism, taking only to the microphone — or in the case of the Philippines the international court of arbitration — rather than the high seas. There can be no doubt that US officials are disappointed at the distinct lack of preparedness on the part of regional allies to be more assertive in challenging China’s claims.
Among commentators in Japan there is broad agreement that a freedom of navigation patrol is not the litmus test for alliance unity in Asia. They stress that Japan’s contribution to regional peace lies in strengthening maritime capabilities, not being a naval loudmouth. Distinguished analyst Funabashi Yoichi has cited domestic pressures that might limit Japan’s ability ‘to live up to its expanded commitments’. There is a ‘real risk’, he adds, ‘that expectation gaps could develop as a permanent feature of America’s relationships with its allies’.
While most official regional reactions to Trump’s remarks have been muted, some have not held back. A major South Korean newspaper described his views as ‘shocking’, since they corrode the ‘mutual trust’ that is ‘the most pivotal element in the alliance’.
In Australia, the head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Peter Jennings, said that if Trump’s vision was enacted ‘you’d have that sense of US disengagement — not going any further west than Hawaii’. Such comments carry some of the alarm that gripped Australian policymakers when Richard Nixon enunciated his Guam doctrine in July 1969, which stipulated that America’s Asian allies needed to assume more of the burden for their own self-defence.
In a similar vein, the eminent strategist Paul Dibb has revived a version of the ultimate nightmare scenario — first raised in the late 19th century — of the great powers becoming embroiled in a European war and therefore leaving Australia defenceless in Asia. Dibb envisages a scenario where a possible Russian attack on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization under President Putin could force the United States to come to the defence of its European allies, thus creating a security vacuum in Asia that Beijing will only be too ready to fill.
It is hardly surprising that Trump’s comments resuscitate old fears among America’s Asian partners. Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Scott Harold noted that the doubts created by various recalibrations of US Asia policy since the late 1960s continue to resonate. Memories of the Nixon doctrine, the eventual abandonment of South Vietnam, the ‘shock’ of the American opening to China and the cutting of official ties to Taiwan all jostle with Washington’s frequent protestations that it is in Asia for the long haul.
It is a time for cool heads and rational analysis. The feverish reactions to Trump’s raw remarks seem to miss the point that even if elected, he would face significant institutional resistance from Washington’s national security community, resistance that would likely prevent — or at the very least significantly modify — the implementation of his drastic vision.
But the unfortunate reality for policymakers in Washington is that Trump’s intervention has come at a poor time. Campaign bluster or not, they reflect a deep, often angry mood in the United States that supports putting ‘America first’. Trump’s cold, transactional vision of alliance management revives longstanding US concerns about ‘freeriding’ and raises again the question of reciprocity in treaty commitments.
That such views have been aired at a time when neither Washington nor any of its Asian allies have found a way to impose a cost on China’s actions in the South China Sea only serves to reinforce an already troubling ambivalence in the region about the future of US policy in Asia.
James Curran is a Professor of History at the University of Sydney and a Research Associate at the US Studies Centre. His most recent book is Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War (MUP, 2015) Curran is currently writing a Penguin Special for the Lowy Institute on the contemporary US-Australia alliance.