SINGAPORE — For America’s allies in Asia, the outcome of President Trump’s summit meeting with Kim Jong-un has been decidedly mixed.
On the good side, they no longer have to be on alert for the imminent outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula.
But the widely anticipated Trump-Kim meeting on Tuesday left them with new anxieties. Mr. Trump’s concessions to North Korea exacerbated their fears about the United States’ long-term commitment to safeguarding the region.
Mr. Trump’s surprise declaration during a news conference after the summit that he would suspend military drills between the United States and South Korea — and that he hoped eventually to pull some 28,000 American troops off the peninsula — blindsided American allies, including South Korea itself.
It also raised questions about whether Mr. Trump’s outreach to the North actually signaled a broader American retreat from the region.
Since World War II, the United States has been a leader in East Asia, providing security assurances to allies in Japan and South Korea. But even before engaging in talks with North Korea, Mr. Trump had questioned the merits of stationing troops in the region, and made it clear he thought the United States was paying too much to support them.
Suspending military drills would be a significant concession to North Korea, particularly as Mr. Trump echoed the North’s previous characterization of the exercises as “war games” and “provocative.” The fact that he appeared to make this decision without informing the Pentagon, never mind officials in Seoul or Tokyo, troubled leaders in both capitals at a time when Mr. Trump has increasingly shown his disregard for traditional American allies.
“It suggests that when he’s in the mood, the president will cut deals with our adversaries involving the interests of our allies” without consulting them, said Michael J. Green, a former Asia adviser to President George W. Bush who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
To some extent, officials in Tokyo and Seoul have grown accustomed to Mr. Trump’s seat-of-the-pants decision making, and they also know that not everything he says ends up as official policy.
But at a time when Mr. Trump is also going after allies on trade issues, the longer-term worry is that the bonds that have long secured America’s role as a leader in the region are steadily weakening.
The biggest beneficiary of an American withdrawal would be China.
Already, Mr. Trump’s preoccupation with North Korea has diverted attention from Chinese actions that alarm its neighbors, most notably a military buildup on islands that China built in the South China Sea.
Ending military drills in South Korea would be a gift to China, which has previously suggested just such a formula: that North Korea freeze its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for a halt to major military exercises by American and South Korean forces.
For China, the ultimate goal is to reduce American influence in the region as it seeks to consolidate and expand its own power. The removal of American troops from South Korea, held out by Mr. Trump as a possibility, is a long-held goal of Beijing.
“This is exactly what they want to see: the United States doing less militarily in northeast Asia,” said Michael Fuchs, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who was a deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Obama administration. China “wants to see the United States sow doubts in the minds of our allies in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere, and this is exactly what President Trump did.”
In South Korea, where the government of President Moon Jae-in has been pushing for the détente between the United States and North Korea, officials did not object to Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement about military drills outright. At a briefing in Singapore, Nam Gwan-pyo, South Korea’s deputy director of national security, said officials had previously discussed suspending drills “as long as dialogue is being maintained.”
But in Tokyo, where officials are much more skeptical of North Korea’s intentions and doubt that it will ever give up its nuclear arsenal, officials were much less sanguine.
“Joint drills with U.S. forces in South Korea play an important role in East Asia’s security,” Itsunori Onodera, Japan’s defense minister, told reporters on Wednesday.
Ever since Mr. Trump’s election, Japan has been anxious about its alliance with the United States. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has worked assiduously to cultivate a close relationship with him and has repeatedly sought assurances of American security commitments.
While Mr. Trump said he wanted to suspend military drills as a show of good faith during continuing negotiations with North Korea, he seemed just as concerned about their cost. “We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money,” he said.
Some analysts in Japan suspect that reveals his real intentions and that North Korea is just a convenient excuse for doing what he has wanted to do all along.
“This has been his own idea expressed since the campaign,” said Fumiaki Kubo, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo. “So this is not a matter of bargaining with North Korea for him. This is his own pet favorite idea.”
The summit meeting’s critics in Japan, much like those in the United States, were disappointed that the joint statement signed by Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim lacked specific commitments by the North, such as a timeline or details about how it would actually go about giving up its weapons.
For Japan, the biggest fear is that future negotiations with North Korea will lead to no substantial disarmament and that Mr. Trump will slowly withdraw from the region.
In that case, Japan may have to reconsider its own military options. Mr. Abe has long had the goal of bolstering Japan’s military and ultimately wants to amend the country’s pacifist Constitution, which was put in place by American occupiers in 1947.
If North Korea keeps some part of its arsenal, while China continues its military buildup, both South Korea and Japan may feel a need to go nuclear themselves.
In Japan, with its unique history as the only country to suffer nuclear bombings, public opinion is opposed to any suggestion of developing nuclear weapons.
But in private, there are conversations about whether Japan might someday be forced into a corner.
“We have been basing our policy on the basis that the U.S. is a credible partner,” said Ichiro Fujisaki, a former Japanese ambassador to the United States. “If that changes, then we have to think differently.”
Jane Perlez contributed reporting from Beijing. Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno contributed research from Tokyo, and Su-hyun Lee from Seoul, South Korea.