With the election of Donald Trump, people have been raising questions about the future of U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia. The prospect of trilateral cooperation among the United States, Japan, and South Korea, which the three countries had agreed to in 2010, has become particularly uncertain. While the doubts about the unpredictability of Trump’s policy toward trilateral cooperation are warranted, what people might have missed is that South Korean domestic political change, especially its next president, will be even a more influential factor for the already strenuous issue.
Although candidate Trump had signaled some key redirections of U.S. policy in Northeast Asia during the campaign, he has largely backpedaled from these comments. For example, Trump, throughout the campaign, rebuked South Korea for not paying enough for U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. In fact, the South Korean government is paying about 50 percent of the total non-personnel costs of U.S. forces, according to congressional testimony by General Vincent Brooks. After Trump was elected president, he had a phone call with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and at least pledged his commitment to the solid alliance even though Trump is not satisfied with the cost burden of U.S. forces in South Korea. In addition, during the campaign, Trump advocated that South Korea and Japan develop their own nuclear weapons rather than relying on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. But after vehement criticisms, Trump denied such a position. Taking into account the views of the mainstream Republican establishment and the political reality, most likely, Trump will not bring about an abrupt and systematic change in the U.S.-South Korea alliance. After all, South Korea, the sixth largest trading partner of the United States, is indispensable not only to contain North Korea, but also to strengthen the U.S. role in Northeast Asia.
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