Donald Trump’s suggestion that Japan and South Korea should take more responsibility for their defense, including possibly developing their own nuclear weapons, has provoked worries in Asia about the potential for a regional arms race.
Thousands of U.S. troops are stationed in Japan and South Korea as part of mutual defense treaties. The arrangement puts U.S. forces close to China and Russia and on the front lines of any possible conflict with North Korea. The allegiances are often described as cornerstones for regional defense.
Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner, said in an interview Friday with The New York Times that he would be open to withdrawing U.S. forces from Japan and South Korea if those countries were not willing to pay more to keep those forces stationed in their countries. “I would not do so happily, but I would be willing to do it,” he said.
Government press officers in Tokyo and Seoul, the South Korean capital, offered muted responses, citing the continuing U.S. presidential campaign. But some newspapers in Asia were vehement in denouncing Trump’s comments in their opinion pages.
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The South Korean mass-circulation daily JoongAng Ilbo called Trump’s comment on the possible pullout of U.S. troops “shocking.”
”His remarks totally shake mutual trust – the most pivotal element in the alliance,” it said. “If he ever becomes president, it will most likely affect the decades-old alliance between Seoul and Washington.”
Trump indicated that he might support Japan and South Korea in developing nuclear arsenals, rather than relying solely on the United States. “At some point, we cannot be the policeman of the world,” he said. “And unfortunately, we have a nuclear world now.”
That suggestion has raised concerns that it might lead to an arms race, with Japan and South Korea building nuclear weapons to counteract the threat from North Korea, which has tested atomic devices.
“Trump’s comments not only completely violate the international consensus of preventing the expansion of nuclear weapons, but use long-ago abandoned Cold War thinking to challenge the trend of peaceful development and harm stability in East Asia,” Wen Wei Po, a Hong Kong newspaper, said in an editorial Monday.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute of South Korea and a leading proponent of the country’s arming itself with nuclear weapons, said he found support for his own ideas in Trump’s comments.
“Now that the leading Republican candidate is talking about letting South Korea arm itself with nuclear weapons and withdrawing American troops from here, we should no longer avoid discussing nuclear armament as one of our survival strategies,” Cheong said.
Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said Tokyo would maintain its policy of not developing or possessing nuclear weapons. “Whoever becomes president, the Japan-United States alliance is the cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy,” Suga said. “We will work closely with the United States for the sake of the prosperity and security of the Asia-Pacific region and the world.”