Despite the attention being given to America’s roiling wars and conflicts in the Greater Middle East, crucial decisions about the global role of US military power may be made in a region where, as yet, there are no hot wars: Asia. Donald Trump will arrive in the Oval Office in January at a moment when Pentagon preparations for a future US-Japan-South Korean triangular military alliance, long in the planning stages, may have reached a crucial make-or-break moment. Whether those plans go forward and how the president-elect responds to them could help shape our world in crucial ways into the distant future.
On November 18, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s most conservative prime minister since the Cold War, became the first foreign head of state to meet with Donald Trump after his surprise election victory. The stakes for Abe were high. His rightist Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has run Japan for much of the last 70 years, has been one of America’s most reliable, consistent, and subservient allies. Yet during the campaign, Trump humiliated him, as well as the leaders of nearby South Korea, with bombastic threats to withdraw US forces from both countries if they didn’t take further steps to defend themselves.
Even more shocking was Trump’s proposal that Japan and South Korea develop their own atomic weapons to counter North Korea’s rising power as a nuclear state. That left the governments of both countries bewildered—particularly Japan, which lost tens of thousands of lives when the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated by American atomic bombs in World War II. (Hundreds of Koreans in Japan died in those attacks as well.) Trump made these statements despite the LDP’s ardent support over the decades for American wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, and the Japanese government’s payment of around $2 billion annually to maintain a string of US bases, primarily on the island of Okinawa, which host over 48,000 American soldiers.
Abe apparently got what he wanted. During an hour-long meeting at Trump Tower on New York’s Fifth Avenue, he and the president-elect agreed that their military alliance was stable and capped their discussions with a friendly exchange of golf equipment. “I am convinced Mr. Trump is a leader in whom I can have great confidence,” Abe declared to a gaggle of mostly Japanese reporters. The president-elect, he said, had established the trust “essential for the US-Japanese relationship.”