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