By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
Questions about US commitment to Asia and the Indo-Pacific are likely to grow after the US and South Korean disagreement about burden sharing within that alliance. As a consensus in the Indo-Pacific is developed that China’s power needs to be countered, therefore, their willingness to act on the issue also grows. There is doubt about whether the United States will act to provide a necessary anchor to regional security. The consequences of balancing China could be grave if Asian powers decide that the US is no longer a reliable partner.
US President Donald Trump has been wary of US alliance commitments for quite some time. It is well-known that the US allies have taken advantages of United States. He frequently complaints that many countries that depend on the United States for their security should pay more for the service that the United States provides or else handle their security themselves. Despite these well-known views, most observers found it shocking that the US would demand another $5 billion from South Korea for the cost of paying US military personnel in South Korea. The negotiations over a new South Korea cost-sharing agreement broke down as a consequence. Similar negotiations are set to take place with regard to US cost-sharing with Japan early next year. While it is possible that the US and its allies will eventually reach an agreement, the strains that this puts on these alliances cannot be minimised.
Even more importantly, American behaviour is being closely watched across the region, by both partners and potential adversaries alike. China, in particular, is likely to feel emboldened by the difficulties between the United States and its partners. China once saw US alliances in the region as a source of stability that prevented greater insecurities as China rose. But more recently, convinced that it had already risen, China has become increasingly irritated at the US alliance structure and military presence across the region. If American difficulties with key allies like Japan and South Korea cannot be patched up, it will likely reinforce China’s over-confidence and could potentially lead to military miscalculations. At the same time, America’s partners and potential partners will see in such behaviour a cause for caution in putting all their eggs in the American strategic basket. If they are convinced that the US is not here to stay, it will make sense for them to cut a deal with China while they still can.
What is particularly worrying with the American move is that while the manner in which the Trump Administration is undertaking this whole step is very crude, the fundamental US resolve to fulfil its global commitments has been a suspect for some time. There is now an apparent agreement between both the left and the right of the US ideological spectrum that the US needs to take care of itself first and the burdens of its global role are no longer affordable. It is understandable that after two decades of fairly intense combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan the American people are tired of the burden they have borne. That popular feeling was reflected not only in Trump’s attitude but also that of the predecessor, Barack Obama. It is also reflected in ideas like offshore balancing that has circulated in the academic and think tank community in the US for some time. This deep sentiment in favour of withdrawal raises questions about whether this is simply a Trump-ian excess or something that has deeper roots in the American political spectrum. Those who argue for continued American global commitments are increasingly reviled as an old Washington elite out of touch with the pain and concern of ordinary Americans. This suggests that the US commitment to the Indo-Pacific could outlast Trump. A more serious problem for who-so-ever follows Trump (assuming Trump loses the presidential elections next year) is that it will be difficult to make a persuasive argument for increasing their commitment to the region even if he/ she is convinced that the American commitment was necessary for America’s own self-interest.
Thus, while the crudeness of Trump’s approach can be ridiculed, the deeper shift in American opinion towards a lesser global role needs to be taken seriously. It is possible that the next American leader will be able to make a convincing case to the American public about the necessity of committing to the region. But this cannot be taken for granted.