While Donald Trump is in Asia, Japanese and South Korean leaders will no doubt seek clarity on his views about alliance responsibilities and his strategy regarding North Korea.
These alliance questions are fairly new to the agenda, arising in the wake of recent remarks by the U.S. president. First came Trump’s suggestion that other nations should be responsible for protecting maritime transit through the Hormuz Strait or reimburse the United States for doing so. He subsequently questioned the one-sided nature of the U.S.-Japan alliance, saying, “If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us at all.”
Though Trump is unlikely to take action on either topic, his comments concern U.S. allies since they are consistent with decades of remarks fixating on the cost rather than the purpose of American military forces and operations overseas. For instance, the recent U.S.-South Korea Special Measures Agreement (“burden-sharing”) negotiations were more contentious than usual, fueled by Washington’s demands for exponential increases in Seoul’s reimbursement for stationing U.S. forces there.
Those negotiations concluded with only an 8 percent increase in South Korea’s contribution, but with the requirement to renegotiate annually instead of every five years. Next year’s negotiations with both South Korea and Japan will occur under the cloud of this year’s demands for a 100 percent increase or even Trump’s “cost plus 50 percent.” The focus on monetary compensation reflects Trump’s transactional view of alliances and stationing U.S. forces overseas.
Trump and Kim Jong-un’s exchange of “beautiful” and “excellent content” letters has fueled speculation of an imminent return to summit diplomacy. A media article even suggested a possible surprise photo op between the two leaders when Trump travels to the demilitarized zone during his trip to South Korea. Both Washington and Seoul denied any meeting is scheduled.
Washington does hope, however, for a resumption of working-level meetings. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented that there is a “very real possibility” of America resuming talks with North Korea “at a moment’s notice.”