What’s behind Donald Trump’s arms sales pitch in Asia?
B. Z. Khasru says the American president can fulfil his campaign promises to reduce trade deficits and US overcommitment by selling weapons to Asia, but the rise in military spending, nationalism and tensions do not bode well for regional stability
By telling Japan and South Korea to protect themselves from North Korea by buying billions of dollars of American military equipment, US President Donald Trump signalled his intent to further fuel the escalating arms race in Asia and profit from it.
On a broader scale, Trump plans to lift restrictions on US arms exports through an executive order before the end of the year, 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 different 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 defence production will jump, which will create jobs at home. Combined, they can help him partially fulfil 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 per cent of the global imports, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. New Delhi nearly doubled its imports during the period. Saudi Arabia, embroiled in a war in Yemen, came in second. China, Pakistan, South Korea and Singapore rank among the top importers.
America’s arms sales initiative, managed by the White House National Security Council, is part of Trump’s plan to make the US more competitive in international trade when its allies shop for fighter jets, warships, missile defence and other military equipment in an intensely competitive market.
Trump said in Tokyo this week that he expected Japan to buy “massive amounts” of US 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.
US aerospace and defence sales have been anaemic. In 2016, the industry generated US$872 billion in sales, down US$5.7 billion from a year earlier, and US$10 billion down from a five-year high in 2012, according to the Aerospace Industries Association, a US trade group. The industry lost more than 14,000 jobs in 2016.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe confirmed that Tokyo would acquire US arms, including Tomahawk missiles, which can ensure pinpoint attacks on North Korean missile bases. South Korea is set to procure bunker-buster bombs, capable of destroying underground facilities. Talks to this end are set to begin soon.
Abe wants to buy American to please his closest foreign friend with an eye towards the future. He cares about being diplomatically and strategically correct because of the China factor. When Abe touted the US-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.
Abe’s public display of cordiality towards Trump, however, masked the hidden uneasiness in Japan about the US president. A recent survey by The Japan Times found 43.7 per cent of respondents viewed Abe-Trump amity as bad for Japan and nearly 63 per cent did not expect much from Trump’s visit.
South Koreans are equally nervous. Only 17 per cent 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 neighbouring 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 an annual average of more than 5 per cent 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 since the China-Vietnam war in 1979 may be coming to an end. Border disputes, rising nationalism and distrust of neighbouring nations’ strategic intentions are behind this arms race.
Trump hopes to use this to America’s advantage.
B. Z. Khasru, is editor of The Capital Express in New York and author of Myths and Facts Bangladesh Liberation War, and The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link