The Black Lives Matter supporters who descended on the US embassy in Seoul over the past two weeks found another demonstration already taking place: scores of hardy activists who for months have protested over Donald Trump’s demand that South Korea quintuple the amount it pays for hosting American troops.
“They are here just to sell their weapons to us,” says one of the protesters. Banners held aloft by one group read: “US imperialism means ‘I can’t breathe’”, in a reference to the protests that have rocked the US.
In a country whose alliance with the US is often dubbed a “relationship forged in blood” for its roots in the Korean war, there has always been a strain of anti-American sentiment, particularly among younger, leftwing groups. But the anger over the current US president has boiled over in the past year, prompting clashes between protesters and police, and driving such views further into the political mainstream.
To force Seoul to pay more, Washington put thousands of South Koreans working on US bases on furlough in April, when the coronavirus pandemic was already hitting the economy hard. The measure was suspended after a stopgap deal agreed in early June, but the damage in terms of public sentiment had been done.
“Mr Trump taunted us, saying it was easier to get rent money from New Yorkers than getting money from the Koreans, and then he insulted us by calling us freeloaders,” says Lieutenant-General Chun In-Bum, a retired South Korean special forces commander. “Now, it has become an emotional issue for the Koreans, which is very unfortunate.”
US president Donald Trump with South Korean president Moon Jae-in in 2017. Washington’s allies in Asia worry Mr Trump’s foreign policy approach will lead to their interests being sidelined © AFP/Getty Images
Ever since Mr Trump was elected, Washington’s long-term allies in Asia have worried about whether his transactional approach to foreign policy would lead to their interests being sidelined. But incidents such as the president’s stand-off with South Korea have only magnified those concerns.
At a time when Washington’s response to coronavirus has been heavily criticised and American society is engulfed in a debate about racial injustice, the dispute with Seoul reflects widening cracks in the entire US-built security order which has kept the peace in the region for the past 70 years — cracks that have been opened by the rapid rise of China, but which have been exacerbated by a lack of US leadership.
Although South Korea is where Mr Trump’s “America First” worldview has had the biggest impact, Washington’s other Asian allies such as Japan and Australia worry that the US, the regional hegemon for most of the past century, is less committed to and less capable of protecting them than in the past. With China using its economic and military clout in increasingly aggressive ways against its neighbours, that concern is turning into alarm.
“Several countries in Asia have concerns about aligning themselves with a US that seems less predictable and not reliable,” says Bonnie Glaser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the US think-tank. “If Trump is voted out in [presidential elections in] November, there will be a sigh of relief across the region.”
But Washington’s allies have doubts about US support that go well beyond the Trump administration. “The reasons are our diplomatic attention span and our military capabilities,” she says.
While Washington’s ties with Europe and Nato have also frayed, including the potential withdrawal of many of the troops in Germany, the risks are greater in Asia, where global trade routes thread through dangerous flashpoints including North Korea, the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, in addition to India’s tensions with both China and Pakistan.
At the same time as allies are questioning Washington’s reliability, there are new signs that the US is losing its long-held military supremacy. Beijing’s growing number of intermediate-range missiles means that America’s traditional way of projecting power in the region — through aircraft and ships deployed in big bases — has in some cases become too risky.
The US military demonstrated as much in April when it ended 16 years of continuous bomber presence in Guam. Since 2004, it had been sending heavy and stealth bombers from the island through the US Pacific territory, from where they could be in the East China Sea, in Taiwan or in the South China Sea within four hours.
Now, they will operate from home bases in the mainland US — a change the US Strategic Command says would make the force more resilient and unpredictable.
“It is an answer to the ‘Guam killer’, and it is the right decision,” says a military official from a US ally in the region, referring to China’s DF-26 intermediate-range missile which can hit Guam from bases in the country. He added that spreading out forces and weapons and moving them around irregularly would make it more difficult and expensive for China to target them. “But of course the immediate political signal people here will pick up is that the US is weakened.”
The same applies to aircraft carriers, which have been a key tool of US power projection. “They could become a dinosaur,” says Yoichi Funabashi, chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative, a Tokyo think-tank which organises exchanges between US and Japanese military officials. “Covid-19 has demonstrated how vulnerable US aircraft carriers are,” he adds, stressing that when the outbreak of the virus forced all four carriers in the region to stay in port, no US carrier was available in the western Pacific.
Washington’s difficulties in handling coronavirus have shaken confidence more broadly. The US is not addressing the pandemic as effectively or as strongly as expected from an economic, military, and technological power, says Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea. “You can say that the armour has been tarnished, and everyone can see that.”
The US rejects such criticism. “We continue to increase our interoperability, information-sharing, and access to enhance our capabilities and improve our co-ordination for competition,” says Captain Mike Kafka, Indo-Pacific Command spokesman. He points to the arrival of 200 marines in Darwin, Australia, two weeks ago for a rotational force deployment.
America’s allies in Asia do give the Trump administration credit for focusing on the military challenge that China now presents. Washington has identified Beijing as a strategic competitor and described it as a revisionist power seeking to “displace the US in the Indo-Pacific region”. It argues that Beijing is using its growing military and economic power to coerce its neighbours to “reorder the region to their advantage”.
The US military is now calling the Indo-Pacific its “priority theatre”, and adjusting its posture to reflect the administration’s single-minded focus on China. “In the military realm the US has woken up,” says Ms Glaser. “A decade from now — it may take that long — we’ll be in a much better position against China.”
In a report to Congress in April, Admiral Phil Davidson, commander of US forces in the Pacific, requested an additional $20bn over the next six years for a revamp he says is “designed to persuade potential adversaries that any pre-emptive military action will be extremely costly and likely [to] fail”.
Among his priorities are an air defence ring to protect Guam and a string of anti-air and anti-ship missile deployments along the chain of islands which separates China from the western Pacific and consists mostly of US allies.
The Indo-Pacific Command is also pushing to strengthen the alliances militarily. It wants to step up intelligence exchanges, build sensor networks to be shared by allies in the region, create joint command and control tools, and increase joint exercises.
Although the US Navy has long conducted so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations through the South China Sea, it has long faced pressure to adopt a more vigorous presence especially from the Philippines and Vietnam, the two countries that have most frequently clashed with Beijing over land features and resource exploration.
Pham Quang Minh, rector of the VNU University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Hanoi, says the US appears to react only when China becomes more assertive. The US “comes and goes” in Asia, he says, and quoting a proverb popular in both China and Vietnam, he adds: “Distant water cannot put out a nearby fire”.
Most recently, the US appears to have changed its approach in the South China Sea in response to Beijing’s increased pressure on fellow claimants of those disputed waters.
When China sent a geological survey vessel into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone near where a drillship was operating for state oil company Petronas in April, the US sailed naval ships through the area, conducted bomber patrols and a joint exercise with an Australian naval vessel nearby. Security experts say this differed from earlier operations. “People think we might now be willing to incur risk on the water to challenge Chinese behaviour, and our south-east Asian friends would welcome that,” says a former US military official.
But behind the military presence, many of its Asian friends are worried about the shift in political attitudes in Washington — and in particular, the ideas behind an America First strategy.
The White House’s “Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China”, released three weeks ago, makes no more than passing mention of values shared with allies such as free trade or democracy. Instead it lists the protection of the American people, homeland and way of life, the promotion of American prosperity, the preservation of peace through strength and the advancement of American influence as its goals.
“America used to be about the liberal international order. That is why we need to counter China — to protect our values and this order,” says Mr Funabashi. “But we no longer see the US rally allies around these values — we fear that they are using countries as pawns, as bargaining chips. This kind of insecurity is very new and very disconcerting.”
Japan, the largest host of US forces in Asia-Pacific, is watching Washington’s fight with Seoul with dismay. Its own host nation support agreement is up for renegotiation this year.
Australia and Japan were particularly disappointed when the US dropped out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama-era regional trade deal, which Canberra hoped would assist in building a balance to China’s economic might.
Richard Maude, former deputy secretary in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, says the US lost a “compelling economic narrative” when it dropped out of the TPP. The US Indo-Pacific strategy is “regularly undercut”, he says, by the economic nationalism of “America First”.
Some US partners also feel entrapped by Washington’s ever fiercer confrontation with China.
Writing in Foreign Affairs in June, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien-loong said competition between the US and China raised “profound questions”. “Asian countries see the United States as a resident power that has vital interests in the region. At the same time, China is a reality on the doorstep. Asian countries do not want to be forced to choose between the two.”
But with its efforts to decouple technology supply chains and its retreat from agreements on arms control, health and climate, many in the region see the US as demanding just that.
Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, says policymakers could be planning for a worst-case scenario where Washington’s attitude becomes simply “you are with us or against us.”
In May US secretary of state Mike Pompeo threatened to “disconnect” with Australia — in vague comments which suggested a cut to intelligence sharing — over the participation of a state government in China’s Belt and Road strategic economic scheme. His statement was quickly modified by the US embassy in Australia.
For most allies a strong partnership with the US is still the preferred option. Vietnam, not an American military ally, is steadily expanding military exchanges with the US, including port visits and observation of exercises. The Philippines, where a longstanding US alliance has suffered from President Rodrigo Duterte’s pursuit of closer ties with China, on June 1 aborted a decision to suspend an agreement regulating US visiting forces, in a tacit recognition of how much the country still values the alliance as a deterrent against China.
But some regional powers are hedging against the risk of US retrenchment — by building security relationships among each other and beyond.
Japan is taking on more responsibility in regional security. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have participated in US aircraft carrier operations and partnered with naval ships from European countries and Canada to ensure maritime security.
In an attempt to provide the economic soft power leadership lacking from the US, Tokyo is countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative with a programme for infrastructure investment in south-east and south Asia.
Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison signed a slew of bilateral agreements with India at a virtual summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this month, including a deal to allow greater access to each other’s military bases. This follows a strategic partnership inked with Vietnam in 2018. Mr Maude says the ideal situation for Australia would be for a number of larger countries to balance China’s influence, with India, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia all playing a role.
Such a rise of “middle powers” stepping in to secure and balance the region is the most benign scenario for the fallout from US retrenchment. But other scenarios are possible. Ms Glaser warns that there is a risk of the region splitting into a pro-US bloc and a pro-China bloc. Although such a development is not highly likely as Beijing’s foreign policy doctrine does not officially approve of alliances, it cannot be discounted, she adds.
Alternatively, some countries traditionally aligned with the US could drift towards China if they conclude that Washington neither respects their economic interests nor protects their security.
In South Korea, that seems a real possibility. S Paul Choi at Seoul-based defence consultancy StratWays Group and a former strategist for the US military in South Korea, says the falling out with Washington makes some leftwing progressives who currently hold power question “what is the difference between the US basically strong-arming its ally, and economic coercion from China?”
Others believe that the South Korean public could also be receptive to Chinese advances as Beijing is seen as ever more powerful. “They are telling people they are going to be a new answer to a new world [ . . .] a lot of people in Korea believe that,” says Lt Gen Chun. “It is making the situation very dangerous.”
Additional reporting by Song Jung-a and Kang Buseong in Seoul