Guarding the Games

At eight o’clock on the morning of 25 November, 27,000 Philippine policemen and women went on alert ahead of the 30th Southeast Asia Games. At a press briefing from Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters in Camp Crame, the spokesman for the Security Task Force, Police Brigadier General Bernard Banac, explained the practical implications of an alert this size. Leaves are cancelled or denied and overtime prepared for the multitude of officers required to secure the Games scheduled from 30 November through 11 December. Though the official figure of cops assigned to the Games was subsequently reduced to 19,767, they come from six federal agencies and countless local counterparts. The large size of the Security Task Force (STF) is a reflection of the scope of security challenges in the Philippines in general.

Less than three years since the Battle of Marawi, terrorism in the Philippines remains enough of a concern that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will play a significant role in guarding the Games. What Brigadier Banac did not mention was that special operations support often accompanies security preparations for events of this type and will come from a variety of sources. AFP Special Operations Command will certainly bolster the PNP Special Action Force for contingencies; as will other participating nations that will demand direct involvement with security of their citizens. Though it hasn’t been publicly acknowledged, world-class counterterrorism units from Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia are almost certainly involved with response planning if not actually deployed in the Philippines. Together, the combined forces of the STF and regional Special Operations Forces is a significant deterrent but it may not be enough.

Scope of the Problem

Securing the 30th Southeast Asian Games is a massive and expensive undertaking. The Games are taking place at 46 venues in four “clusters” spread across several provinces and thousands of kilometers. Four police regions – Ilocos, Central Luzon, Calabarzon, and Metro Manila – form the core of the STF. They are in turn supported by the AFP, the Bureau of Fire Protection, the Philippine Coast Guard, the Office of the Civil Defense, and the Metro Manila Development Authority, as well as local agencies from the four venue clusters. Recycling security measures used for elections, the PNP announced a ban on guns, sirens, blinkers, and “unauthorized motorcycle escorts” in and around the venues. These are significant expressions of state power, the management of which would be a significant bureaucratic challenge in the most developed of nations. In the poor, diverse, and criminally violent Philippines, it a daunting task.

Unsurprisingly, the largest effort by far is in the Metro Manila region. The National Capital Region Task Group of the STF consists of 17,734 of the total force structure. Though Manila is clearly the biggest and most visible venue and the most symbolically important, this leaves a scant 2000 personnel to guard and manage the remaining venue clusters in Subic, Clark, and “Other Areas” which includes significant events in La Union, Batangas, Laguna, and beyond. The Coast Guard contingent responsible for guarding the surfing events at La Union and other water sports in Subic and Zambales accounts for fully half of that number; a lopsided disposition that adds security concerns to the growing list of complaints about the Games.

Whatever the reason for the perceived (and real) dysfunction of the event, guarding the Games is a massive interagency – and international – security challenge.

Problems with the Games began well before the 30 November opening ceremony. Construction delays and shoddy work led to some events taking place in half-finished venues. There were reports of incomplete paint jobs, lack of lighting, and in the case of the first football qualifier, a stadium without a scoreboard or enough working toilets. Transportation and accommodation of athletes however provoked the loudest protests as several teams waited hours for transportation and were then forced to squeeze into accommodations designed for half their number. The Cambodian team became briefly famous for forcibly occupying their hotel’s conference room after being told there were no guest rooms for them. Ever active in the Philippines, social media exploded with comparisons to the disastrous Fyre Festival in the Bahamas and the hashtag #SEAGames2019Fail trended on Twitter.

Guarding Games

President Duterte is sensitive to the fact these complaints reflect poorly on the Philippines as a whole. Perhaps feeling pressure, he announced on 28 November that the military, not the police or a civilian planning committee, would organize future events of this type. In Duterte’s words, he prefers AFP planning because “they think structurally.” This is an unsurprising reaction from Duterte who has been predisposed to military administration for some time. In 2018, he placed the Customs Bureau under the AFP after elements of the former were involved in drug smuggling. At times he put the AFP and PNP at odds, encouraging the military to prevent corruption by blocking PNP officers from entering casinos. He has a pattern of appointing retired generals in positions of bureaucratic power. Eight of his Cabinet principals are retired generals as are 46 appointed to lower level offices. This includes the former Chief of Defense that serves as Director of the Security and Safety Cluster within the Southeast Asia Games Organizing Committee. With government in Manila largely in the hands of former AFP generals, it is difficult to pin the Games’ shortcomings on the failings of civilian planners.

Whatever the reason for the perceived (and real) dysfunction of the event, guarding the Games is a massive interagency – and international – security challenge. Despite their best efforts however, the Philippine agencies tasked with security have limited funding and lack spare capacity. A number of powerful and longstanding insurgencies occupy the AFP in the country’s south while a well-armed criminal class empowered by the drug trade and enabled by entrenched corruption hampers the PNP’s ability to surge for the Games. The Philippine Coast Guard, charged with protecting the water sports, is well known for not having the budget to leave the pier. These obstacles are endemic to the Philippine government and are not likely to go away no matter how much “structural thinking” President Duterte manages to apply to guarding future games.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

How the Pro-Democracy Election Victory Could Calm Hong Kong

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

Nearly 3 million of Hong Kong’s 4 million registered voters expressed their disapproval of the city’s current government in a decisive local election on Nov. 24 that reduces the Hong Kong authorities’ political potency and also gives the opposition and protest movement a mandate to push against Beijing’s control. In theory, the huge electoral victory gives only a marginal political boost to the opposition in an institution that is otherwise heavily tilted in favor of the pro-establishment forces and ultimately controlled by Beijing. Nevertheless, the opposition now has much stronger backing to promote its pro-democracy agenda.


The Big Picture

Hong Kong voters went to the polls for the first time since the city’s latest political crisis began in an election to select local representatives. The vote, coming six months into a protest movement that has gripped Hong Kong, amounted to a referendum of the city’s Beijing-backed leadership. An overwhelming victory for pro-democracy candidates significantly altered Hong Kong’s political landscape and dealt the current government a blow, weakening the key pillar Beijing relies upon to exercise control.

See China in Transition


According to Hong Kong’s Registration and Electoral Office, opposition pro-democracy parties won 77 percent of the 452 total seats up for grabs, giving them control of 17 of the city’s 18 districts. This is a sharp reversal of the pro-establishment’s near-dominance of the district councils (those groups held 70 percent of total seats and controlled all districts since 2015). The record-high turnout of 71 percent, compared with the 40 percent average for previous district council elections, reflects high political awareness among the city’s residents, who were energized by the protest movement and undeterred by street battles between protesters and the police leading up to the election and the strong security presence during Hong Kong’s only direct and democratic election.

A Symbolic Landslide

The district councils traditionally hold little political power beyond decisions over local community affairs. But six months of persistent — and increasingly violent — protests effectively transformed this year’s election into a proxy battle along partisan lines, with the defeat of the pro-establishment camp apparently weakening a key pillar of governance supporting Beijing’s control in the city. The result also energizes the opposition, boosting its prospects in next year’s Legislative Council elections and could give it as many as 117 additional seats on the 1,200-member election committee that will choose Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2022. Even with the momentum from the district council vote, it’s unlikely the opposition will be able to capture a majority in either the Legislative Council or on the election committee.

But the results do send a clear measure of the strength of societal approval for it to pursue pro-democracy measures. Ultimately this means the central government will be forced to address opposition demands in some fashion or risk drawing an even stronger reaction on the streets as well as more international scrutiny. The number of opposition candidates who take seats in the local councils, however, will also lead to political impasses with the Beijing-friendly city administration over community affairs, likely leading to gridlock over local enforcement for years to come.

Despite the strong performance by opposition candidates, the raw vote totals do not necessarily translate into a sweeping popular endorsement of the protest movement, especially its more violent elements. The opposition candidates won 57 percent of the total popular vote, an improvement from their average 40 percent share of vote totals in the previous two district elections in 2011 and 2015, but not a dramatic one. Critically, this year’s election outcome will not appease the city’s more radical protesters, whose confrontations with authorities have persisted largely irrespective of the city’s political process. But the strong performance of pan-democracy politicians could restore the prominence of the protest movement’s more moderate voices.

What Could Happen Next

The local election results could effectively infuse the city’s political institutions with the spirit of Hong Kong’s street battles. The election may also provide a window of temporary respite in Hong Kong, but it likely will not last much more than a matter of days or weeks. Several major developments in the near future could signal whether the election result will lead to spikes in protest activity or whether the opposition’s demands will be channeled into political action, even as the broader protest movement is set to stay. Here are the signs to watch.

What the Protest Movement Does Next: Protest-related violence notably ebbed on election day, reflecting a degree of unity in the protest movement. One test of that unity will be whether the opposition’s electoral gains will help moderate protest groups and pan-democracy leaders discourage the more radical elements in the movement from resuming their violent tactics. It also raises the question of how the election results will be used as leverage to push forward the protesters’ demands. In particular, a scheduled protest on Dec. 8 by the Civil Human Rights Front will be important to monitor. What happens surrounding that protest will show whether protesters of all stripes can maintain a collective front on the pro-democracy demands. Another key question is whether the radical wing of the movement will maintain the peace as it did over election weekend or whether there is a quick return to disruptive action.

The loss of legitimacy suffered by its ally at the Admiralty will effectively force Beijing to choose between offering concessions to Hong Kong’s moderates or taking the risk of energizing the radicals.

How Hong Kong Authorities Respond: Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she and her government would “seriously reflect” on the Nov. 24 results, but ultimately, Beijing will determine how she and her government respond. As happened in 2003, when mass protests led to a similar defeat of pro-establishment forces and the resignation of several key officials, the election results will almost certainly cause more fissures within the administration and possibly prompt a few officials to resign. There is also a possibility that Lam’s administration could make political concessions to try to appease moderate protesters. Anything short of those gestures, however, will only deepen the political crisis.

What Beijing Does Next: The Chinese central government has issued no official responses to the election outcome beyond making convenient accusations, blaming “outside interference” for the result. Nonetheless, the loss of legitimacy suffered by its ally at the Admiralty will effectively force Beijing to choose between offering concessions to Hong Kong’s moderates or taking the risk of energizing the radicals. Thus, it may find the more expedient course of action will be to isolate itself from the mess by scapegoating the Hong Kong authorities and forcing the resignation of some Cabinet officials — and possibly even Lam herself. Beijing may even go as far as to influence the Hong Kong authority to pursue an inquiry of police actions during earlier protests — a key demand of protesters that the Admiralty rejected out of hand. Beijing certainly doesn’t want whatever concessions it grants to further embolden the protesters and the pro-democracy movement. But its more hard-line alternatives — especially the disqualification of a few of the recently elected pro-democracy candidates — would immediately inflame protests and push a resolution of the city’s crisis even further away.


Stratfor LogoAs the world’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is an official partner of the Affiliate Network.

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Venezuela’s Bad Neighborhood

The last few years in Latin American politics ushered in a wave of political upheavals from Chile to Honduras to Venezuela, and most recently Bolivia. Though the causes that sparked the manifestations differed across the hemisphere, Venezuelan involvement appears to be a common thread in the northern reaches of the continent. In a region that struggles to establish liberal democracies with fully-functioning economies, the socialist government in Caracas has an existential need to avoid isolation. It pursues this objective by destabilizing neighbors it views as ideological rivals and undermining the political opposition in socialist-leaning capitals. The governments of Ecuador and Colombia have both complained directly and repeatedly to the Maduro Administration about its meddling in political protests but their concerns have fallen on deaf ears. Despite crippling inflation and a contested political atmosphere, Caracas continues to see Latin America as a bad neighborhood to be managed.

Regional Problems

The complaints emanating from Colombia and Ecuador are a natural response to apparent Venezuelan meddling in their politics. During popular protests in Ecuador last month against suspension of fuel subsidies, President Lenin Moreno accused his predecessor, exiled former President Rafael Correa, of working with Venezuela to destabilize the Ecuadoran government. Specifically, Moreno accused Correa of “igniting” the protests using Venezuelan and Cuban agitators paid to fuel the protests. Indeed, many of those arrested were in fact, Venezuelan and Cuban, suggesting a more international conspiracy than a fuel-price hike would normally trigger. More ominously, the arrest of 17 Cuban and Venezuelan “spies” caught shadowing and photographing President Moreno’s convoy suggests those countries have a very high-risk tolerance for intervening in the affairs of their neighbors.

Colombia also has its concerns about Maduro’s political meddling. In an explosive speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Colombian president Iván Duque denounced Maduro for support to drug trafficking and transnational terrorism. In addition to having similar complaints about Venezuelan nationals sparking violence at protests, Duque was referring to the more sinister threat posed by thinly-veiled Venezuelan government support to ELN and dissident factions of FARC. According to documents leaked from the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebín), and the Operational Strategic Command of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (CEOFANB), there is a well-known and growing relationship between Venezuela’s armed forces and these groups. Among other things, the documents revealed the Venezuelan military supports the activities of Colombian guerillas it calls “red groups.” Trained by the military, these red groups can be directly integrated with ELN and FARC and can provide intelligence support to Venezuelan military planning for war with Colombia. One document addressed to the Sebín Director of Counterintelligence shows an ELN presence in nearly every state in Venezuela, a force the Colombian military believes to number 2000 guerillas.

Global Linkages Venezuela

Venezuelan meddling in the affairs of its neighbors is almost certainly not a new phenomenon. Maduro’s relationships with other irredentist regimes like Cuba, exacerbate the threat he presents to the region. His relationships with global powers Russia and China are a problem for the United States and therefore tied to issues of global imporance. The deployment of a People’s Liberation Army (Navy) hospital ship to Venezuela in early 2018 and Washington’s reaction to it illustrate this point. As troubling as a PLA(N) presence in the Caribbean may seem to the Pentagon however, Russia has far more robust economic and military interests in the stability of the Maduro regime.

Russian oil companies are a critical factor in preventing the slow collapse of productivity by Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA. Long the economic lifeline of the Maduro regime – and the Chavez regime before that – PDVSA’s decline, and Russia’s relationship with it, gives Moscow tremendous leverage over Maduro and his foreign policy. A Venezuela-friendly neighborhood is certainly good for Russia’s military sales program which had been at a low ebb after the April 2016 election of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) in Peru and later Ivan Duque in Colombia. In PPK’s case, he set the conditions for corruption investigations associated with previous administrations’ purchase of Mikoyan fighter aircraft, Mil helicopters, and associated support packages. For his part, Duque demonstrated an early willingness to review the peace agreement with FARC, a move that threatened to reduce its influence and that of its Russian sponsor.

Hidden Hand

Apart from Venezuela, Moscow remains a primary supplier of hardware and expertise to Nicaragua and Cuba among others and uses those countries as enablers and staging areas for the conduct of active measures like those affecting Ecuador. According to a white paper released in May 2019,[1] “Russia seeks to undermine the consolidation of the region as a group of pro-U.S. states, and in the process, distract the U.S. and weaken its strategic position in the Western hemisphere.” Russia does this by propping up friendly regimes and manipulating the politics of others as part of its larger strategy.

As U.S. Senator Rick Scott said during an interview for Brazilian newspaper: Folha de S. Paulo, “Russia and China are in all Latin American countries, but not to help. They want to control.” In many ways, this is a replay of conditions seen during the Cold War when the Soviets used proxies to drive wedges between rival governments and indigenous or marginalized political groups. Many of those groups are still notoriously underserved by their governments and represent a tremendous potential for resistance. Venezuela, which exerts influence on all the countries around it, has both the political will to develop this potential and a well-developed capacity to do so. The ability to see Moscow’s hand behind Venezuela’s machinations however is not so clear. For its own reasons, the Maduro regime seems content acting as a Russian enabler in the region if not an outright proxy for Moscow’s interests. How long those roles remain unchanged in the face of Venezuela’s continuing decline is certainly something its neighbors will watch.


[1] Though this white paper, titled: “Russian Strategic Intentions”, is not an official publication of the U.S. Department of Defense, it is signed by the Deputy Commanding General of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and includes chapters written by numerous U.S. Military and Intelligence Community officers writing in their official capacity.


Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.

Militancy in Tajikistan Could Draw in Outside Powers

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


A Nov. 6 attack on a Tajik security checkpoint in Rudaki district near the border with Uzbekistan reportedly left at least 17 people dead, including 15 militants, a border guard and a police officer, though subsequent reports Nov. 9 indicate that at least five more security officers than initially reported actually died.

Authorities have detained four people suspected of involvement in the incident. According to the government, the attackers belonged to the Islamic State and entered Tajikistan from Afghanistan. Islamic State social media channels on Nov. 9 claimed the attack and attributed it to the group’s Tajikistan affiliate, though this has yet to be independently verified.


The Big Picture

The persistent threat of militancy in Tajikistan will demand the attention of Russia, China and the United States given the security interests of all three external powers in Central Asia.

See Instability in Central Asia


The Latest in a Series of Attacks

This is the latest in a series of recent militant attacks in Tajikistan. Earlier incidents included an attack on foreign bicyclists claimed by the Islamic State in July 2018 and two deadly prison riots allegedly tied to the group in November 2018 and May 2019. Whether the Islamic State, in fact, was involved in the most recent incident remains unclear; details on the identities of the attackers have not been released, and some reports have emerged that the attackers were natives of Tajikistan’s northern Sughd region.

The Tajik government has been known to exaggerate the threat of militancy generally and of the Islamic State specifically to justify security crackdowns and political consolidation when what it actually is dealing with is local opposition to its rule. If the government is correct this time, however, then the threat of a spillover of militancy from Tajikistan’s long and porous border with Afghanistan has just grown.

The attack on the security checkpoint in Rudaki district highlights the persistent threat of militancy of all stripes that Tajikistan faces, something of direct concern to external powers in the region — and especially given the U.S. drawdown of forces from Afghanistan. Primary among these concerned external powers is Russia, which has 7,000 troops stationed at a base in Tajikistan and has voiced concerns over the militant threat stemming from Islamic State militants in northern Afghanistan.

Tajikistan Map Rudaki District

China has also become more involved in the security sphere in Central Asia due to its concerns that militancy could spill over into its restive Uighur population; China, too, has a military presence on Tajik territory near the border with Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor. And despite its intention to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States has also remained involved in counterterrorism and counternarcotics efforts in Central Asia. Even though all three powers share an interest in preventing or mitigating the spread of militancy in Tajikistan, tensions between them could arise if any one of these countries unilaterally increases its security activities there.

What to Watch for

Details about the attackers: Further details on the identities of the attackers will help determine their links, if any, to the Islamic State or other transnational militant groups. Connections to the Islamic State would indicate a transnational militant threat has emerged in Tajikistan, as opposed to a domestic militant threat arising from local political and security dynamics within Tajikistan, where tensions stemming from crackdowns on opposition groups and lingering animosities from the country’s civil war in the early post-Soviet period still simmer. External powers are far more likely to respond — and Tajikistan is far more likely to allow them to respond — if the Islamic State was in fact responsible. It will also be key to watch if more evidence emerges linking the Islamic State to the attack, and if there are any indications of plots by the Islamic State to conduct further attacks in the country.

Tajikistan’s next moves: Tajik security forces are known to respond to such attacks with military crackdowns and security sweeps, particularly in opposition hotbeds like the Rasht Valley and the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of eastern Tajikistan. It will be important to see if such crackdowns lead to further clashes between security forces and opposition elements, whether political or jihadist. This could create a more tenuous security situation in the country, with greater instability increasing the potential for external involvement. If the Tajik government perceives a threat from Afghanistan that it can’t deal with directly, it would be more willing to allow such involvement.

The position of Russia and other external powers: Russia’s reaction to the attack will be key to monitor, whether in terms of increased exercises or potential deployments of additional assets and personnel to the country. A day after the attack, counterterrorism units based at Russia’s 201st military base in Tajikistan conducted a military exercise that involved a mock armed group attempting to seize control of a checkpoint and military hospital in a cantonment of the Dushanbe garrison. Russia has also attempted to have its forces return to the Tajik-Afghan border in the past, something the Tajik government has resisted — though it might relent if the threat level rises. If such attacks increase in frequency and intensity, not only could Russia’s security involvement in the country increase, counterterrorism involvement by China and the United States could also increase — potentially fostering increased competition between these powers.


Stratfor LogoAs the world’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is an official partner of the Affiliate Network.

www.stratfor.com

Isolating Japan

The White House announcement last month that the United States would abandon its position in Syria dumbfounded many of the world’s foreign policy practitioners including, it seemed, the entire executive branch of the U.S. Government. The subsequent attempt to react to the sequence of events it unleashed will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on U.S. allies around the world, especially those that are more or less dependent upon American security guarantees. In light of what appears to be a unilateral abandonment of a longstanding U.S. policy without warning or any appreciable coordination with allies, leaders around the world are almost certainly reviewing options for their defense. For them, reassessing the reliability of America’s commitment to their security will surely become a national security priority.

Vicious Cycle

Japan is arguably the most important of America’s nervous allies. With a post-war constitution that prohibits the maintenance of armed forces, Japan is particularly vulnerable to isolation due to a dramatic U.S. policy shift affecting security in Asia. This fact is presumably not lost on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe whose party has for years played at the margins of the Japanese Constitution’s Article 9 prohibition of military forces. The foundation of his party’s efforts sits at the heart of 70 years of Japanese politics but after the American pullout of Syria last month, Abe’s argument, that Japan must be less reliant on the United States for security, must seem strikingly tangible.

Japan exists in a difficult and dangerous part of the world. Apart from the immense and growing power of China, Tokyo faces renewed Russian challenges to disputed islands, festering animosity with the Republic of Korea, and a nuclear-armed North Korea that is suddenly receiving a great deal of coddling from Washington. The alarming apathy of the Trump Administration to America’s traditional role of keeping all this in balance is surely making Abe’s case. President Trump’s oft-stated desire to “get U.S. troops out of Asia” simply highlights that much of the shifting situation is due to his disinterest in the status quo ante. Though a few within the Administration have tried to make the case that America’s alliances are investments in its prosperity and security, all seem to have failed to convince him. While Japan’s moves to spend more on its own defense predate Trump, they will surely serve to confirm the President’s point of view…at least to some.


Apathy toward the traditional American role as marriage counselor between Seoul and Tokyo will likely have an unfortunate effect on cooperation between them.


The Cost of Peace

At the precise moment Japan is taking small steps toward a more independent defense policy, Korea is undergoing a political sea change. Though South Korean President Moon Jae In doesn’t speak about it publicly, there is evidence Seoul is greatly concerned about the trajectory of U.S. diplomacy with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Though he is largely responsible for the rapid warming of inter-Korean relations that enabled the Singapore Summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump in June 2018, Moon likely made these moves in hopes of steering the process. Instead he found himself locked out of the room in Singapore. From that moment it was clear the cost of the breakthrough was the abandonment of 70 years of U.S. support of Seoul as the only legitimate government of the Korean people.

Sharing legitimacy with Kim Jong Un is a terrible position for the South Korean leader to be in; particularly since it comes as the result of a decision made in Washington rather than in Seoul. The decision also solidifies the Japanese urge to re-arm which in turn, heightens South Korean insecurity. The lethal combination of Japanese and South Korean hedging with Trumpian apathy toward the traditional American role as marriage counselor between Seoul and Tokyo, will likely have an unfortunate effect on cooperation between them.

Isolating Japan

The sins of Imperial Japan in the 19th and early 20th centuries serve as an inhibitor to cooperation with Korea. For this reason, the United States played a critical stabilizing role in the region as the broker of alliance politics between them. If, for example, Korea could not or would not work with the Japanese directly, they could at least collaborate multilaterally. At times when even this was not possible, each could work bilaterally with the U.S. towards common objectives determined by Washington. This approach, sometimes called “multilateral bilateralism” is not ideal but the United States uses it successfully in Southeast Asia.

In Northeast Asia where the stakes are higher, this approach requires a firm and flexible American hand. That consistency and the concentration it demands seem a distant memory now. Just yesterday, 14 November, Secretary of Defense Esper landed in Seoul with a demand the South Koreans pay an additional USD $5 billion to cover the cost of U.S. troops stationed there. The surprise 400% increase is a seemingly arbitrary number proposed by President Trump himself. and one sure to exacerbate Seoul’s insecurity. With the costs of alliance skyrocketing and its benefits decreasing, the unilateral abandonment of a Syrian ally in combat half a world away will surely echo in the ears of Moon Jae In and Shinzo Abe as they consider options for the future of their national defense.

We can already see the beginnings of Japan’s isolation in the form of worsening trade relations between Seoul and Tokyo, the abandonment of an intelligence sharing agreement between them, and Sino-Russian moves this summer to exacerbate a dispute over Takeshima/Dok Do. Though these examples predate the dramatic American retreat in Syria, we can safely assume Beijing and Moscow will view Washington’s lack of reliability as a golden opportunity to isolate Japan and use South Korean fears to break apart the mechanisms of U.S. influence in the region. Once a bulwark of stability, the self-inflicted decline of American leadership in Northeast Asia will present isolating Japan as a feasible and acceptable course of action for China and Russia to pursue.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

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