“America will remain the world’s dominant power in the 21st century only if it is the dominant Pacific power,” the since-deceased Lee Kuan Yew often said to me. Lee, the founder of modern Singapore and one of the smartest strategic minds I have ever encountered, spoke about this issue late in life , as he worried about the breakdown of the stability that had allowed for the extraordinary global growth of the past half-century. The key, he was certain, was deep U.S. engagement in Asia, which was quickly becoming the center of global economics and power. Alas, President Trump appears to be doing everything he can to violate Lee’s dictum.
The media got it wrong. The real headline of the Trump-Kim summit — ironically held in Singapore, the city-state that Lee built — should have been: “U.S. weakens its 70-year alliance with South Korea.” The most striking elements of Trump’s initiative were not simply that he lavished praise on North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, but also that he announced the cancellation of military exercises with South Korea, adopting North Korea’s own rhetoric by calling them “provocative.”
The president must have missed his briefing. In fact, it is North Korea that provokes and threatens South Korea, as it has done since it first invaded the South in 1950. North Korea is thought to have about 1 million active-duty troops, almost twice as many as the South, and it has constructed perhaps as many as 20 tunnels to possibly mount a surprise invasion. North Korea also has more than 6,000 pieces of artillery that can reach South Korea, including some whose range is so long that they endanger 32.5 million people, more than half the country’s population, according to a study by the Rand Corp. The Defense Department estimated in 2006 that if North Korea opened artillery fire on the South, 250,000 people would be killed in Seoul alone, the Rand study notes. Of course, about a decade later, North Korea now has up to 60 nuclear bombs, complete with the missiles to deliver them. South Korea’s “war games” with the United States are necessary defensive exercises undertaken in the shadow of an aggressive adversary.
Even worse, Trump signaled that he would like to end the U.S. troop presence in South Korea. He is wrong that this would save money, unless he plans to demobilize the troops — which would mean cutting the United States’ active-duty forces, the opposite of his policy. Since South Korea covers almost half the costs of U.S. troops stationed there, moving them to, say, Georgia would not be cheaper. But that’s beside the point. Through bitter experience, the United States has found that it is much better to have troops ready, battle-trained and with knowledge of the local geography rather than keeping them all in the United States, only to be sent abroad when trouble breaks out.
A few commentators have pointed out that the big winner of the Singapore summit was the great power that was not even there: China. That’s exactly right. Consider what China has always wanted. First, the stabilization of North Korea. Until recently, there was much talk of the impending implosion of the North Korean regime. For China, this would be a nightmare, since unification would take place on South Korean terms. This would mean a large democratic state allied with Washington, housing U.S. troops right on China’s border. That nightmare looks unlikely now that the United States is promising security guarantees for North Korea and dangling aid and investment.
China’s second great desire has been to rid Asia of U.S. troops, especially from the mainland. Trump appears inclined to do this as well. After the Cold War, many Asian countries got nervous that the United States would withdraw from Asia, leaving its allies to the tender mercies of a rising China. To assure them otherwise, Joseph Nye, a top Defense Department official in the Clinton administration, formulated a report and initiative that committed the United States to maintain a forward troop presence in Asia of about 100,000. Were Trump to follow through on his impulse to withdraw troops from South Korea, the United States would fall far below that threshold.
For China, the Trump administration has been the gift that keeps on giving. Trump began his term in office by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was created by a group of U.S. allies to stand as an alternative to the Chinese market. The partnership was a bulwark against Chinese power that could have proved attractive to other Asian countries. Now the rules of the road are being written in Asia, and they are being written in Mandarin.
Lee was right. The long game for the United States over the next few decades is how to handle the rise of China. And right now, we are quitting the field.