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America’s Asian Allies Aren’t Alarmed Enough About Trump

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Engaging in political discourse across Asian capitals today inevitably leads to discussions about the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House. In Japan, a phrase has emerged—moshi-tora (“if Trump”)—summarizing the speculation on what might unfold if Trump wins the U.S. presidential election in November. The focus shifts to contrasting Trump’s potential second term with Joe Biden’s tenure, during which Washington prioritized strengthening alliances, forming coalitions to counter China economically, and enhancing Taiwan’s deterrence capabilities.

Trump has consistently expressed his intention to prioritize narrow U.S. interests and reduce support for American allies. Despite this, many Asian analysts and political leaders exhibit a degree of composure regarding the prospect of Trump’s re-election. Having navigated through Trump’s erratic policies during his first term, some hope that rational lawmakers could influence his decisions. Others believe their previous success in managing Trump sets a precedent for the future.

However, this confidence may be misplaced. A second Trump administration is likely to introduce more significant disruptions to Asia than his first term did. During his initial tenure, Trump’s more extreme foreign policy inclinations were moderated by seasoned appointees, a restraint unlikely to persist into a potential second term. If re-elected, Trump is expected to increasingly view allies as economic adversaries, scale back U.S. military presence globally, foster alliances with autocratic leaders, and challenge established norms that have maintained nuclear nonproliferation in Asia. Consequently, Asian nations reliant on U.S. security assurances may need to adopt a more self-reliant defense posture, as America pivots towards a transactional, self-interested approach, departing from its historical role as a benevolent regional leader.

To be fair, Asian governments are preparing for the possibility of another Trump presidency. From Seoul to Manila, conference halls host expert panels forecasting potential second-term policies. Asian embassies in Washington have established specialized policy units to monitor the presidential campaigns and cultivate relationships with Trump’s key advisors.

In preemptive moves, some Asian countries are renegotiating defense burden-sharing agreements. Japan and South Korea, for instance, are revising their arrangements to preemptively address potentially heightened demands from a second-term Trump administration. Meanwhile, U.S. officials are working to institutionalize multilateral initiatives like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and defense cooperation agreements to safeguard against potential reversals.

Despite these proactive measures, allies’ optimism about managing a second Trump term may be unfounded. The assumption that they will have comparable counterparts in a future Trump administration overlooks Trump’s likely preference for loyalty over experience in appointing cabinet members and national security advisors. Trump’s foreign policy focus remains rooted in mercantilism and self-interest, diverging sharply from commitments to global freedom, democratic values, and international order. His policies are anticipated to accentuate trade disputes, renegotiate existing agreements, and undermine collaborative efforts on emerging technologies and security.

In conclusion, Asian allies must recognize the volatility and unpredictability of a second Trump presidency. Enhancing defense capabilities, reinforcing investments in U.S. supply chains, and advocating for continued U.S. leadership in the region are critical steps. Cooperation among Asian nations is essential, as isolated efforts to appease Trump’s administration may prove insufficient in mitigating broader regional security risks under a potential second term.