President Donald Trump’s 12-day swing through Asia above all highlights the importance of that vast region for the United States and our diverse historically rooted involvement in economic and political terms. The trip began in Japan and ends in the Philippines with stops in China, South Korea and Vietnam.
The economic importance of Asia continues to expand. Since 1985, total U.S. exports to Asia have been greater than to Europe. That differential continues to grow. Political rhetoric can overshadow that reality.
In military terms, Japan and South Korea are vital U.S. allies. The nuclear threat from North Korea only reinforces those ties.
The American propensity to focus on immediate developments can distort and distract from the importance of our historical engagements. President Millard Fillmore opened Japan to the outside world in 1854 with a letter of friendship. Commodore Matthew Perry delivered the missive, accompanied by a very heavily armed naval flotilla. Fillmore, not a great president, nonetheless is arguably our “first” in Pacific terms.
President Theodore Roosevelt has the greatest claim to be our first Pacific commander in chief. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for the enormous accomplishment of ending the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. At the time, Roosevelt declared that as the 20th century unfolded, Asia would become in some respects more important than Europe for the United States. In this realm, as in others, history has vindicated TR.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was educated in the Philippines in useful if unpleasant ways as aide to imperious Gen. Douglas MacArthur, used his far-seeing Farewell Address to warn of the growing “military-industrial complex.” He mentioned four very large armed conflicts of the 20th century — the two World Wars and the Korean War, along with the Russo-Japanese War. Three of the four were fought in Asia.
The 21st century is relatively more peaceful and promising — so far — permitting government leaders to focus more on economic concerns and less on armed conflict. Trump will attend the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Danang, Vietnam, a coastal city once a major base for U.S. military forces
Both China and Japan have enormous economies that are still smaller than the U.S. All three share interest in economic growth. Scare stories about China “owning” the U.S. distort a reality in which both national economies are increasingly integrated and mutually dependent. Much of China’s trade surplus is earned by American and European multinational corporations, whose employees and stockholders as well as customers in turn benefit.
A quarter-century ago, the same scare stories featured Japan, but for two decades that nation has been struggling with long-term recession punctuated by sporadic, fitful growth. No one argues today that Japan is about to replace the U.S.
South Korea is both a very close military ally and a successful political democracy. The new administration of President Moon Jae-in should be encouraged to take initiative in diplomatic efforts toward North Korea.
President Harry Truman in 1950 supported U.N. defense of South Korea. That nation returned the favor by providing enormously effective combat troops to support the U.S. in the Vietnam War. Military cooperation remains close. The U.S. now fosters closer Japan-South Korea military collaboration to meet the North Korea threat.
The end of the Cold War has opened a more fluid strategic environment in Asia, in which economics has become more important than ideology. That is an advantage for the U.S.