After the Trump-Kim summit, Asia is changing

US News & World Report
Paul D. Shinkman
President Donald Trump (R) gestures as he meets with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) at the start of their historic US-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore on June 12, 2018.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Almost all of the immediate results from the summit between President Donald Trumpand North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are governed by uncertainty, experts say, including whether the U.S. will renege on its commitments to protect allies like South Korea and Japan, whether China has the ability to help maintain peace in the region, and perhaps most of all whether Pyongyang will back away from a nuclear weapons program that puts the entire world at risk.

But one point is clear: The pace of the shifting balance of power in Asia toward China, slow and gradual in the 21st century, is picking up speed in the Trump administration.

"The U.S., particularly the Trump administration, has revealed its preference for pulling back and consolidating its commitment in the area," says Dimitar Gueorguiev, a professor at the Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and an expert on Chinese politics. "These are kinds of tectonic forces. We've known for a long time that the 21st century is going to be about the U.S. and China, so it's no coincidence that things are changing dramatically."

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Most worrisome to analysts, and reportedly some in the U.S. military and in South Korea, was Trump's surprise announcement that the U.S. would suspend or perhaps end military exercises with South Korea that serve as both a deterrent to North Korea and China and also maintain readiness for coalition forces that could deploy elsewhere in the region.

In follow-up comments Trump also raised the possibility of withdrawing the U.S. troops from South Korea due to its expense. This isn't the first time an American president has considered trimming a military presence, but never at a time when Pyongyang posed such a threat. George H. W. Bush weighed withdrawing nuclear weapons from the peninsula, and George W. Bush needed these forces for combat operations in the Middle East.

As allies in the region question whether they can rely on the U.S. for military and diplomatic support – a sentiment shared by others around the globe following Trump's dismissive statements at the summit in Quebec of leading industrial nations – some experts believe China is already poised to inherit the mantle of Asia's leader.

Beijing has made quiet overtures to regional powers like Seoul during the past few decades, improving trade and diplomatic relations as a foothold for greater cooperation in the future.

"You've seen the region undergoing a gradual but significant transition over the last 10 years or more with the rise of China," says Robert Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College and expert on the region.

The shift behooves regional countries to show greater respect for Chinese interests, he says, particularly as they sense a weakening of America's influence in the region.

South Korea feels "compelled to accommodate China because China has simply become a much more influential actor in South Korea's backyard," Ross says.

At the same time, other Asia analysts say Beijing risks alienating many countries in the region if it presses its interests with a heavy hand.

And the Trump administration with its overtures to North Korea has "expedited those trends" of China becoming more influential, Ross adds, by "acting abruptly, and without consultation, and seemingly wanting to transform the U.S.-South Korea relationship overnight."

Regardless of what Kim does next, he has already succeeded in demonstrating that his regime is worthy enough for a bilateral meeting with a sitting U.S. president.

"The greatest winner of Trump's North Korea overture is Kim and his North Korea. It has greatly enhanced Kim's legitimacy at home and in the eyes of his Chinese ally,'" says Jian Chen, a professor at New York University Shanghai and a visiting professor at East China Normal University.

Chinese President Xi Jinping also sees an opportunity to take advantage of the dramatic turnaround on the Korean Peninsula, making him another winner, Chen says, which comes comes at a time of mixed messaging from the Trump administration.

The U.S. wrought intense criticism from China the same week as the North Korea summit by celebrating the opening of a new diplomatic facility in Taiwan. China considers the small island that has diplomatic relations with fewer than two dozen countries to be a renegade province of its own, and as such the U.S. does not recognize it diplomatically or have normalized relations, including a formal embassy. Trump, however, has repeatedly infuriated Beijing regarding the delicate balance with Taiwan, including by accepting a phone call from the Taiwanese president shortly after his taking office.

"Trump's North Korea overture has seriously compromised U.S. strategic position in the Asia-Pacific, including on Taiwan. Is there still any credibility and consistency in the U.S. strategy and commitment – including Trump's security guarantee to North Korea – that others can trust?" Chen says.

Taiwan serves as an example of how the Trump administration appears poised to use its power to pressure China, Ross says. "If you're Taiwan, this would make you nervous."

On issues such as North Korea the Chinese now have to choose whether they will maintain the status quo to secure their position as the chief broker between regional powers and the U.S. for high-profiles issues in the region, or whether they want to push out the U.S. entirely.

"They're cautiously optimistic that they can have their cake and eat it too," Gueorguiev says, "that they can allow this kind of warming relations between North Korea and the U.S., and maybe lose to some extent the power and the drama of that guardianship, but in return get the U.S. to pull back a little bit, at least from that theater."

But that dispute between the U.S. and China will likely take place elsewhere, he says.

"We would be mistaken to get caught up in the headlights of what's going on in Northeast Asia right now," he says. "The real struggle for influence is going to be in the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia, between the U.S. and China."