Donald Trump said he would be open to Japan and South Korea building nuclear weapons to deter North Korea, and would consider withdrawing troops from both American allies unless they paid more for their own defence.
In an interview with the New York Times, Mr Trump said that allowing Japan and South Korea to develop a nuclear arsenal would reduce pressure on the US to come to their defence every time North Korea acted belligerently. Washington could not continue to respond to requests for help whenever Pyongyang “raises its head”, he warned.
“There’ll be a point at which we’re just not going to be able to do it any more. Now, does that mean nuclear? It could mean nuclear,” the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination said.
Many experts worry that Japan and South Korea developing atomic weapons would spark a nuclear arms race in east Asia that would be very dangerous, particularly given the tensions between Beijing and Tokyo. But Mr Trump said the US “cannot be the policeman of the world” and suggested Tokyo and Seoul would move in that direction anyway if the US continued along what he described as a path of “weakness”.
“Would I rather have North Korea have them [nuclear weapons] with Japan sitting there having them also? You may very well be better off if that’s the case,” Mr Trump said, before adding that “if Japan had that nuclear threat, I’m not sure that would be a bad thing for us”.
Tim Keating, former head of US Pacific Command, questioned that logic, saying there was no need for Tokyo and Seoul to pursue nuclear weapons.
“[Japan and South Korea] are at the very core of our national security strategy in the Asia-Pacific,” Mr Keating said. “There is no need for either South Korea or Japan to pursue a nuclear weapon programme. Japan provides significant financial support for the thousands of US troops stationed there, as does South Korea. Trump’s position is not helpful.”
The Japanese government did not immediately react to the comments from Mr Trump. But Ichiro Matsui, the Osaka governor, said Japan should be ready in case Mr Trump was elected president.
“Japanese politicians should prepare for the possibility of Mr Trump becoming president. Politicians have a duty to prepare for all possible scenarios.”
While Mr Trump has said the US should do more to tackle terrorism, he has adopted one of the most isolationist stances on foreign policy for a leading Republican presidential contender in years. But in the New York Times interview, he disputed that idea, saying he was “not isolationist, but I am ‘America First’”.
Foreign policy experts and the other presidential contenders this week criticised Mr Trump for suggesting — one day before the Belgium terror attacks — that Washington take a lesser role in Nato, the 28-member military alliance that has formed the bedrock of the transatlantic security relationship since the second world war.
During the campaign, Mr Trump has called on Japan and other US allies to pay more for their defence. While most US experts agree that other nations — particularly in Europe — should boost their defence budgets, Mr Trump has gone further. Asked if he would consider removing troops from Japan and South Korea unless they paid more, he said “yes”.
“I would not do so happily, but I would be willing to do it,” the New York businessman said. “We cannot afford to be losing vast amounts of billions of dollars on all of this . . . And I have a feeling that they’d up the ante very much.”
Mr Trump also said he would stop buying oil from Saudi Arabia if the kingdom did not commit soldiers to fight Isis, adding that “if Saudi Arabia was without the cloak of American protection . . . I don’t think it would be around”.
The tycoon said he would also push to renegotiate treaties, such as the one that underpins Nato, saying they were “very unfair” to the US. He added that the US-Japan mutual defence treaty was also “not a fair deal”.
Underscoring the difficulty in pinning down the foreign policy doctrine to which Mr Trump subscribes, he appeared to take a more interventionist stance on the South China Sea, where China has raised tensions by building artificial islands and dual-use facilities in the contested waters. Asked if he would consider claiming some of the islands or reefs in the South China Sea, he said “perhaps”, before adding that the US had other leverage, including “tremendous economic power over China”.
This week Mr Trump gave the Washington Post the names of five people he said were advising him on foreign policy, but the group was immediately dismissed as an obscure bunch who lacked experience. One was a recent graduate who listed his role at the Model United Nations as part of his experience.
Mr Trump gave three more names to the New York Times: a former special operations commander called Gary Harrell, an army general who serves in the reserves called Bert Mizusawa, and a retired admiral called Chuck Kubic whom Mr Trump said “was very good, nice, supposedly”.
Several dozen prominent Republican foreign policy advisers this month signed a letter saying Mr Trump was “unfit” to be president, raising concerns that he would struggle to secure high-profile advisers. Asked in the interview whether that was a challenge, Mr Trump said many people wanted to advise him but that a number of them were under contract as pundits for television networks and therefore not available. “I currently have some that are thinking about getting out of their contract cause they’re so excited about it.”
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