Donald Trump, the leading Republican candidate for this fall’s presidential election, has been no stranger to controversy. Washington’s longstanding relationships with its key Northeast Asian allies—Japan and South Korea—were among his recent targets. In an interview last month with The New York Times, Trump questioned the value of the alliances with Tokyo and Seoul, accusing those countries of benefiting from Washington’s security guarantees and offering little in return.
Trump further insisted that the United States should think about withdrawing its forces from both Japan and South Korea—more than 80,000 troops in total—unless Washington’s Asian allies “pay more” for their housing. To cap things off, Trump suggested that both Japan and South Korea consider developing an independent nuclear weapons capacity as a potential solution to regional security threats posed by North Korea.
The notion of abandoning the alliances with Japan and South Korea, which have served U.S. interests remarkably well over the past several decades, has been met with concern and surprise in Seoul and Tokyo. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary insisted that, no matter whom the United States elects later this year, the alliance with Washington would remain the “core of Japan’s diplomacy.” The influential liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun evaluated Trump’s remarks as “bewildering” and having “caused unease” in political and diplomatic circles in Tokyo. South Korea has expressed similar frustrations, with the Joo Ang Daily noting that such suggestions would “destabilize regional security.”
In truth, it is nonsensical to suggest that U.S. allies in Northeast Asia take on more of the burden for the U.S. bases there. Japan and South Korea already pay the lions-share of costs of constructing new bases and infrastructure in their countries. Further, as U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert recently noted, Seoul continues to pay for more than 55 percent of non-personnel costs. In Japan, Tokyo is on the hook for 100 percent of the cost of replacing the controversial Futenma base in . Japan has even offered to pay more than a third of the costs—totalling more than $3 billion—to move U.S. forces to Guam (which is a U.S. territory).
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