Trump's positions on trade, alliances could roil Asia ties
China is ripping off America in trade and should be slapped with a fat import tax
China is ripping off America in trade and should be slapped with a fat import tax. U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. manufacturing jobs to countries with cheaper labor. 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 percent tariff on Chinese imports into the U.S.
And as the business mogul vows to "Make America Great Again!" he's poking a stick elsewhere in Asia.
He has accused India and Vietnam, which have pulled closer to the U.S. as China's might has grown, of taking American jobs.
And Trump is questioning what the U.S. gets out of its decades-old security alliances with Japan and South Korea, which host 80,000 U.S. forces — the backbone of the U.S. 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 Dec. 30.
Trump also asserts that Japan and South Korea should pay for U.S. military protection, but overlooks that they already pay about half the cost of stationing U.S. 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.
"U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. economy back into a recession by employing protectionist trade policies.
On foreign policy, Trump is best known for promising to build a wall to stop illegal migration into the U.S. from Mexico, and for proposing a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S., which inflamed sentiments in the Muslim world. But on the campaign trail, he has also highlighted the need to reform U.S. trade relationships in Asia to bring jobs back to America.
"I've not heard Trump criticized for that so much as his general super-nationalism. That aspect bothers people," said Richard Ellings, president of the National Bureau of Asian Research, who has been watching the reaction in Asia.
Should Trump win the nomination, he would likely face Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democrats. When she was secretary of state, Clinton led the Obama administration's outreach to Asia's fast-growing economies — although as a candidate she has come against the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal that she once extolled.
Trump also 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 U.S.-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.
Trump also sees the imposition of tariffs as a way to get Beijing to put pressure on its erstwhile ally North Korea to stop nuclear brinkmanship.
"I mean, you've got this madman playing around with the nukes and it has to end and China has to do it," he told Fox News Jan. 8, referring to the unpredictable North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
But while he slams China's commercial practices and resolves to boost the U.S. 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.
"I love China," Trump said at the Jan. 14 Republican debate. "I love the Chinese people but they laugh themselves, they can't believe how stupid the American leadership is."