China is ripping off America in trade and should be slapped with a fat import tax. US military allies Japan and South Korea are freeloading and need to pull their weight. The pan-Pacific trade pact negotiated by the Obama administration is a “total disaster.”
With characteristic brashness, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has staked out uncompromising positions on Asia policy that could potentially roil US relations with the region if he won the White House.
That’s already prompted some sharp commentary from usually friendly countries in Asia, and expressions of contempt from Republican foreign policy hands who have vowed to oppose Trump.
Presidential hopefuls of both parties typically talk tough on China because of America’s yawning trade deficit and the migration of US manufacturing jobs to countries with cheaper labour. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee who lost the 2012 election, had vowed to declare China a currency manipulator on day one in office.
Trump is making the same threat, but also proposing a 45% tariff on Chinese imports into the US.
He has also accused India and Vietnam, which have pulled closer to the US as China’s might has grown, of taking American jobs.
And Trump is questioning what the US gets out of its decades-old security alliances with Japan and South Korea, which host 80,000 US forces — the backbone of the US military presence in Asia.
“If somebody attacks Japan, we have to immediately go and start World War III, okay? If we get attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us. Somehow, that doesn’t sound so fair,” Trump said on the stump in South Carolina December 30.
Trump also asserts that Japan and South Korea should pay for US military protection, but overlooks that they already pay about half the cost of stationing US forces on their soil.
In Washington, more than 70 Republican national security experts have signed an open letter condemning Trump, saying his insistence on close allies like Japan paying vast sums for protection, “is the sentiment of a racketeer, not the leader of alliances that have served us so well since World War II.”
Asian commentators have responded to Trump’s rise with a combination of puzzlement and anxiety.
“US politics is in disarray,” lamented the Nikkei newspaper in an editorial after Trump took an important step toward clinching the Republican nomination to contest the November election when he won seven states in “Super Tuesday” primaries. “Japan has taken for granted US leadership in international politics. How are we supposed to face this situation?” it asked.
A commentary in South Korea’s Dong-a-Ilbo newspaper said Seoul needs to start preparing for the possibility of a Trump presidency, which could kick the US economy back into a recession by employing protectionist trade policies.
Trump opposes the TPP that he says would ultimately benefit China, although it is not among the 12 nations currently taking part.
In a Republican debate last week he called the agreement “a total disaster,” primarily because it doesn’t address currency manipulation. He blames undervalued currencies for trade imbalances with Japan, China and other countries.
Trump says that the sheer volume of US-China trade gives Washington leverage over Beijing, although he exaggerates the size of imbalance. For years China was widely regarded as having undervalued its currency to help its exporters, but the yuan appreciated significantly against the dollar after 2010. Market forces appear to have played a greater role in a more recent depreciation in its value.
But while he slams China’s commercial practices and resolves to boost the US military presence in the disputed East and South China Seas to check Chinese “adventurism,” Trump gives back-handed compliments to Beijing’s leaders as being smarter than Washington’s. He has likened them to Super Bowl winners competing against a high school football team.