Why Trump Pushed Arms Sales in Asia

Why Trump Pushed Arms Sales in Asia

B. Z. Khasru

By pushing Japan and South Korea to protect themselves from North Korea by buying billions of dollars of American military equipment, President Trump has signaled his intention to further fuel the escalating arms race in Asia and profit from it.

On a broader scale, Trump plans to lift restrictions on U.S. arms exports through an executive order before year end, a move that could intensify existing conflicts and spark new ones worldwide.

Trump's idea will help the United States in two ways. First, it will reduce America's financial burden to keep soldiers in parts of the globe by partially shifting the load to host countries. Second, America's trade deficit with its wealthy Asian partners will drop, while defense productions will jump, which will create jobs at home. Combined, they will help him partially fulfill his election-campaign pledges.

Asian nations are Trump's customers of choice. Flush with newly minted wealth and mired in decades-old hostilities, these nations have been prime arms recipients for the past five years. India led the pack, absorbing 13 percent of the global imports, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. India nearly doubled its imports during the period. Saudi Arabia, which remains embroiled in a war in Yemen, came in second. China, Pakistan, South Korea and Singapore ranked among the top importers.

What's on Trump's Mind

America's arms sales initiative, managed by the White House National Security Council, is part of Trump's plan to make the United States more competitive in international trade when its allies shop for fighter jets, warships, missile defenses and other military outfit in an intensely competitive market.

Trump told a news conference in Tokyo last week that he expected Japan to buy "massive amounts" of U.S. arms, while stressing his concern about America's trade deficit with the world's third largest economy. He made a similar statement in South Korea.

U.S. aerospace and defense sales have been anemic. In 2016, the industry generated $872.1 billion in sales, down $5.7 billion from year earlier, but a whopping $10 billion from a five-year high in 2012, according to the Aerospace Industries Association, a U.S. trade group. The industry lost more than 14,000 jobs in 2016.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe confirmed Tokyo would acquire U.S. arms, including Tomahawk missiles, which can ensure pinpoint attacks on North Korean missile bases. Korea would procure bunker-buster bombs, capable of destroying underground facilities. Seoul-Washington talks to this end would begin soon.

Abe wants to buy American to please his closest foreign friend with an eye toward the future. He cares about being diplomatically and strategically correct because of the China factor. When Abe touted U.S.-Japan alliance at the start of Trump's visit, he had on his mind not only North Korea, but also China.

The two leaders agreed to work together to create a “free and open Indo-Pacific region,” a key diplomatic goal of Tokyo to promote an international maritime order — a move widely seen as an attempt to counter China's stepped up military activity in the South China Sea.

Japanese, South Koreans Nervous

Abe's pubic display of cordiality toward Trump, however, masked the hidden uneasiness in Japan about the U.S. president. A recent survey by The Japan Times found 43.7 percent of the respondents viewed Abe-Trump amity as bad for Japan and nearly 63 percent did not expect much from Trump's visit.

South Koreans are equally nervous. Only 17 percent of them are confident that Trump would "do the right thing regarding world affairs," according to Pew Research.

Still, China's expansion of its military capabilities is leading neighboring countries such as India, Vietnam and Japan, which have long-standing territorial or maritime disputes with the communist nation, to significantly upgrade their military forces.

Military spending in Southeast Asia, meanwhile, jumped by more than 5 percent yearly on average between 2006 and 2015. Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia more than doubled their spending. Thailand and the Philippines saw sharp increases as well.

The trend suggests that the relative stability that has existed since the China-Vietnam War in 1979 may be coming to an end. Border disputes, rising nationalism and distrust of neighbor's strategic intentions are behind this arms race.

Trump hopes to use this to America's advantage.

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