Fear of instability in Northeast Asia mounts as US intentions in the region remain unclear.
To depict President Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the functional equivalent of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union would be an exaggeration, but because trade is the primary instrument of regional integration in Northeast Asia, its implications are more worrisome than those of Brexit. While Europe has cultivated a system of shared values and made conscious efforts to overcome historical animosities and reduce the risks of war by building interlocking institutions and fostering a “European” identity, Northeast Asia has eschewed integrating mechanisms and the dilution of national identities. What integration has been achieved is the result of market-based economic decisions and American engagement. Trump’s rejection of TPP and repudiation of Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia undercuts both pillars of regional stability and prosperity.
Trump’s actions would be cause for concern under any circumstances, but they are especially worrisome because the region is more unsettled than it has been for several decades. North Korea is adding to its nuclear arsenal. China’s economy is slowing but Beijing’s military buildup and use of economic and political leverage to pressure its neighbors have intensified. South Korea’s president has been impeached and imprisoned; her approach to North Korea and “Comfort Women” agreement to reduce tensions with Japan might be repudiated after the upcoming special election. Japan’s modest adjustments to military policy in response to threats from North Korea and Chinese pressure over disputed islands have unsettled domestic constituencies and enraged Chinese and Korean politicians.
Trump’s actions would be cause for concern under any circumstances, but they are especially worrisome because the region is more unsettled than it has been for several decades.