Asian military strategists and security risk assessors are re-reading their disaster scenarios after Donald Trump threw the United States’ Kurdish allies to the wolves.
Since Trump assumed the presidency early in 2017, Washington’s Asian allies have found ways of accommodating, or working around his isolationism, ignorance, whimsy, need to distract attention from his legal problems and fixation with the bottom line of financial deals.
But Trump’s throwing of the Syrian Kurds into the maw of Turkish President Recep Tyyip Erdogan, who, convinced they are terrorists, loosed his military on them, is a betrayal of a different order.
The world has come to understand that being seen to be a winner is the only consideration for Trump. Indeed, dumping the Kurds seems to have been the first response that came to Trump’s fertile imagination as he confronted the mounting demands in Congress that he be investigated for abuse of power, and perhaps impeached and removed from office.
But Trump’s jettisoning of the Kurds, whose militias led the campaign against the Islamic State group and lost 11,000 people in the fighting, goes several steps farther than his past distractions.
It shows he is prepared to send hundreds or even thousands of people to their deaths to feed his hubris.
So the betrayal of the Kurds sparked public anger towards Trump from among his Republican followers on Capital Hill for the first time, thus raising the prospects of impeachment.
In a hurried act of fence-mending, Vice-President Mike Pence was dispatched to Ankara on Thursday to twist Erdogan’s arm. The Turkish leader agreed to a five-day cease-fire during which time the Kurdish militias would be allowed to leave the 30-kilometer corridor Erdogan wants to establish and control on the Syrian side of the common border.
But the damage among US allies has been done. In Asia, the betrayal of the Kurds has rung alarm bells in South Korea, in particular, but also in Australia and Japan.
Among the 10 countries of Southeast Asia the crude face of Trump’s untrustworthiness has only added another wrinkle to the on-going game of finding a functioning balance in their security relationships with China, the US and, increasingly, India.
For South Korea, however, the evidence from Syria that there is no end to Trump’s capacity for betrayal, comes at a particularly sensitive time.
Seoul and Washington are in the middle of rancorous negotiations about how much South Korea must pay for the 28,500 US troops stationed on the peninsular.
Since he came to office Trump has railed against “deadbeat allies,” and demanded that Europe, Japan and South Korea pay much more for the upkeep of the US troops stationed in their regions.
At the moment, South Korea is paying about $US1 billion a year for the American troops. But in a recent interview with a local newspaper, the US Ambassador to Seoul, Harry Harris, confirmed rumors that Washington wants a five-fold increase to $US5 billion a year.
This is not going down well with the South Korea public. But the example of Trump’s treatment of the Kurds raises the possibility in South Korean minds that if he doesn’t get his money he’ll order US troops withdrawn, something he’s mused about in the past.
That would leave South Korea as exposed to an onslaught from the North as it was at the start of the civil war in 1950.
As well as the money, there are good reasons for South Koreans to question whose side Trump is on in their confrontation with the Marxist monarchy of Kim Jung-un in the North.
Trump has lavished praise and even affection on Kim in the expectation that this deal-making strategy would persuade the young North Korean leader to abandon his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
No such luck. Trump’s three summit meetings with Kim have produced nothing of substance. And Trump’s bromantic overtures have been rejected. Kim has forged ahead with his military development programs, but has been careful to keep away from tests of weapons that directly threaten the US.
On the plus side Trump does seem to have learned from this experience that, in diplomacy, grand gestures usually come at the end of a lot of hard work, not at the beginning. North Korean and US officials are now negotiating in the background and they may produce something of substance in the future.
Japan is in a position similar to South Korea’s – with some 54,000 US troops based in its country, for which Washington wants more money, and sitting on the frontline with North Korea and China.
However, Tokyo governments usually manage not to become publicly excited when danger looms. That was the script followed this week, which prompted Kuni Miyake, president of Japan’s Foreign Policy Institute, to write:
“People in Tokyo either don’t get it or they do not want to know what the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria really means for the Japan-US security alliance mechanism.
“They may be right in thinking that such a thing might only happen to South Korea. But how sure can Japan be about that? I cannot be so sure. Anything can happen in the era of intuition, coincidence and misjudgement.”
National security has always been a ringing issue in Australia, a vast country with a small population that has constantly felt itself vulnerable to invasion from the north. That vulnerability has intensified as China has become an expansionist power reaching down into Southeast Asia.
As insurance, successive Canberra governments have been swift to bolster their defense treaty with Washington by being among the first to sign up for American wars. Australians have fought alongside Americans in every major US military action since the Second World War, including Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The message from the Kurdish region of northern Syria, however, is that generations of dead and wounded Australian comrades may not be enough to secure the loyalty of this US president as Canberra contemplates an increasingly complex relationship with Beijing.
This has generated a debate in the last few days on the Australian political stage and in the media. The grudging verdict so far is that, as with Japan, the US-Australian alliance is far too deep and broad to be upended by the manias of one shambolic American president.
But a degree of uncertainty remains, and that is intensified by the common view gelling across Asia that any risk assessment must assume Trump will be re-elected in 2020 for another four years.