SINGAPORE — For America’s allies in Asia, the outcome of President Trump’s summit meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea has been decidedly mixed.
On the good side, they no longer have to be on alert for the imminent outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula.
But the widely anticipated Trump-Kim meeting on Tuesday left them with new anxieties. Mr. Trump’s concessions to North Korea exacerbated their fears about the United States’ long-term commitment to safeguarding the region.
Mr. Trump’s surprise declaration during a news conference after the meeting that he would suspend military drills between the United States and South Korea — and that he hoped eventually to pull some 28,000 American troops off the peninsula — blindsided American allies, including South Korea itself. Even the Pentagon was caught off guard.
More broadly, Mr. Trump’s declaration raised questions about whether his outreach to the North actually signaled an American retreat from the region.
Since World War II, the United States has been a leader in East Asia, providing security assurances to allies in Japan and South Korea. But even before engaging in talks with North Korea, Mr. Trump had questioned the merits of stationing troops in the region, and made it clear he thought the United States was paying too much to support them.
Suspending military drills would be a significant concession to North Korea, particularly as Mr. Trump echoed the North’s previous characterization of the exercises as “war games” and “provocative.” The fact that he appeared to make this decision without informing the Pentagon, never mind officials in Seoul or Tokyo, troubled leaders in both capitals at a time when Mr. Trump has increasingly shown his disregard for traditional American allies.
“It suggests that when he’s in the mood, the president will cut deals with our adversaries involving the interests of our allies” without consulting them, said Michael J. Green, a former Asia adviser to President George W. Bush who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
To some extent, officials in Tokyo and Seoul have grown accustomed to Mr. Trump’s seat-of-the-pants decision making, and they also know that not everything he says ends up as official policy.
But at a time when Mr. Trump is also going after allies on trade issues, the longer-term worry is that the bonds that have long secured America’s role as a leader in the region are steadily weakening.
A day after the president announced the military drill suspension, defense officials in Washington were still scrambling to determine whether they could soften Mr. Trump’s declaration, which directly contradicted past assertions from American military commanders that the joint exercises should not be viewed by North Korea as provocative.
Lt. Col. Christopher Logan, a Defense Department spokesman, said that “we are working to fulfill the president’s guidance.”
Other officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said that they wanted to hear specifically from the White House just how expansive is the definition of war games.
“Joint exercises are not all war games,” said Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center in Washington. “This gives Trump room to come back down.”
Mr. Daly said he expected a clarifying statement in the next few days that would say what is, and isn’t, included in the American concession.
But doing so could open the door for Mr. Kim to accuse Mr. Trump of reneging on his promises.
Speaking to reporters in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that Mr. Trump had been clear with the North Korean leader about canceling the military exercises.
“I was present when the discussion took place,” Mr. Pompeo said. “He made it very clear that the condition precedent for the exercises not to proceed was a productive, good-faith negotiations being ongoing. And at the point it’s concluded that they are not, the president’s commitment to not have those joint exercises take place will no longer be in effect.”
Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he had no problem with Mr. Trump pausing large-scale joint exercises as long as it was helpful to negotiations. But he said he expected routine training to continue.
The biggest beneficiary of an American withdrawal would be China.
Already, Mr. Trump’s preoccupation with North Korea has diverted attention from Chinese actions that alarm its neighbors, most notably a military buildup on islands that China built in the South China Sea.
Ending military drills in South Korea would be a gift to China, which has previously suggested just such a formula: that North Korea freeze its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for a halt to major military exercises by American and South Korean forces.
For China, the ultimate goal is to reduce American influence in the region as it seeks to consolidate and expand its own power. The removal of American troops from South Korea, held out by Mr. Trump as a possibility, is a long-held goal of Beijing.
“This is exactly what they want to see: the United States doing less militarily in northeast Asia,” said Michael Fuchs, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who was a deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Obama administration. China “wants to see the United States sow doubts in the minds of our allies in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere, and this is exactly what President Trump did.”
In South Korea, where the government of President Moon Jae-in has been pushing for the détente between the United States and North Korea, officials did not object outright to Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement about military drills. At a briefing in Singapore, Nam Gwan-pyo, South Korea’s deputy director of national security, said officials had previously discussed suspending drills “as long as dialogue is being maintained.”
But in Tokyo, where officials are much more skeptical of North Korea’s intentions and doubt that it will ever give up its nuclear arsenal, officials were much less sanguine.
“Joint drills with U.S. forces in South Korea play an important role in East Asia’s security,” Itsunori Onodera, Japan’s defense minister, told reporters on Wednesday.
Ever since Mr. Trump’s election, Japan has been anxious about its alliance with the United States. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has worked assiduously to cultivate a close relationship with the president and has repeatedly sought assurances of American security commitments.
While Mr. Trump said he wanted to suspend military drills as a show of good faith during continuing negotiations with North Korea, he seemed just as concerned about their cost. “We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money,” he said.
Some analysts in Japan said they suspected that was his real intention and that North Korea was just a convenient excuse for doing what he has wanted to do all along.
“This has been his own idea expressed since the campaign,” said Fumiaki Kubo, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo. “So this is not a matter of bargaining with North Korea for him. This is his own pet favorite idea.”
The summit meeting’s critics in Japan, much like those in the United States, were disappointed that the joint statement signed by Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim lacked specific commitments by the North, like a timeline or details about how it would actually go about giving up its weapons.
For Japan, the biggest fear is that future negotiations with North Korea will not lead to substantial disarmament and that Mr. Trump will slowly withdraw from the region.
In that case, Japan may have to reconsider its own military options. Mr. Abe has long had the goal of bolstering Japan’s military and ultimately wants to amend the country’s pacifist Constitution, which was put in place by American occupiers in 1947.
If North Korea keeps some part of its arsenal, while China continues its military buildup, both South Korea and Japan may feel a need to go nuclear themselves.
In Japan, with its unique history as the only country to suffer nuclear bombings, public opinion is opposed to any suggestion of developing nuclear weapons.
But in private, there are conversations about whether Japan might someday be forced into a corner.
“We have been basing our policy on the basis that the U.S. is a credible partner,” said Ichiro Fujisaki, a former Japanese ambassador to the United States. “If that changes, then we have to think differently.”
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