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Japan needs to map out plan B

by Shihoko Goto

The deal reached between the United States and North Korea is far from what Japan would have negotiated for itself. Granted, Donald Trump was in communication with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the phone during his time in Singapore, and the U.S. president said at his concluding press conference that the Japanese abduction issue was raised during his bilateral talks with Kim Jong Un. Yet the downside risks of what could happen in the near term and in the long run may have actually increased.

In the brief four-point joint statement, the U.S. and North Korea agreed to work toward complete denuclearization, but without a clear timeline or other details on how that process could be pursued and monitored. What Trump did make clear, though, is that he is open to the possibility of having Kim visit the White House, and for him to visit Pyongyang. That would add to the list of firsts that appears to be a not insignificant driving force in Trump’s pursuit of diplomatic relations. But just as much as the administration is willing to take on an unchartered approach to diplomacy, it also is undaunted about confronting long-standing allies despite fundamentally strong relations.

That stance was made quite clear when Trump stated that he plans to end joint military exercises with South Korea. The “freeze for freeze” approach, whereby the U.S. would only consider backing down on defensive military exercises with South Korea in return for concrete steps for denuclearization by North Korea, had actually been rejected by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this year. Now, though, Trump has called for the exercises to be stopped without consulting Seoul or indeed before reaching a consensus within the U.S. government, and before any firm, verifiable commitments from Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. That decision is undoubtedly a huge win for Kim, and Trump may focus on the benefits of the cost savings that move would make. For Seoul and Tokyo, though, their very security is at stake.

Ending joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea because of cost and from faith in North Korea no longer backtracking on its commitments is hardly reassuring for Japan, which continues to depend on the U.S. security umbrella. In fact, it makes Tokyo more vulnerable not only to the military threats of Pyongyang, but also Beijing, given that the exercises have focused on providing regional security against hostilities from China as well as from North Korea.

Granted, Trump has made no bones about his views of U.S. military alliances in Asia even on the presidential campaign trail, arguing that it places an unfair burden on U.S. personnel in addition to costs. Hostile relations with North Korea, coupled with the fact that both Tokyo and Seoul actually contribute much more financially than their European counterparts to the alliance, had toned down that voice. But if North Korea is seen less as a threat by Washington, it may well lead to decreased U.S. military commitment to East Asia.

Japan must, of course, step up efforts to ensure that Washington does not retreat even further from the region, not least by making clear that there is yet no tangible progress in denuclearization, highlighting the fact that the process could take years to complete. Japan must also continue to highlight the security threat posed by China in the region, and the need to counterbalance China’s aggressions in the South and East China Seas in particular.

At the same time, Tokyo needs to reassess its relations with the U.S. and its dependency on it for security. Tokyo’s capability as a global leader was made clear recently as it ensured that the Trans-Pacific Partnership survived and thrived even after U.S. withdrawal, as the need for fair trade and coherent rules grows stronger than ever.

Similarly, Japan will need to take on a greater role in ensuring stability in the region amid rising uncertainties, not least from the U.S. While Japan’s focus until now has been first and foremost to preserve the status quo, that will no longer be a possibility. Reforming the Constitution and increasing military spending will become a necessity, but at the same time, Japan’s need to enhance diplomatic relations with neighboring like-minded countries, especially South Korea, will only grow. The Singapore summit has increased the need to speed up that timeline.

Shihoko Goto, a senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, is an expert on economics and politics in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.