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‘Allies First’ would be the right approach for Trump in Asia

The North Korean threat should be at the top of the agenda during president's swing through the region, not bilateral trade deficits

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U.S. President Donald Trump is about to start his first Asia tour, in which he will promote a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and U.S. security and prosperity. His agenda ranges from trade and investment — reflecting his “America First” notion — to security issues such as the North Korean nuclear and missile threats, and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

For Japan, it is encouraging that the Trump administration echoes Tokyo’s new vision for the Indo-Pacific region, although Washington’s emphasis on bilateralism on trade remains a great concern. But given its urgency, North Korea should be the priority for the Japan-U.S. alliance. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump need to come up with a common strategy to deal with the growing North Korean threat.

Tokyo and Washington share the same goal of denuclearization of North Korea and both emphasize the importance of diplomatic, economic and military pressure, and the two allies reject “dialogue for dialogue.” But they do not necessarily share the same approach to achieve their goal. Although it endorses Washington’s every-option-on-the-table approach, Tokyo in fact does not welcome the use of force by the United States unless Pyongyang initiates an armed attack on the territories of the U.S. or its allies. Japan is concerned that any strike initiated by Washington would immediately trigger North Korean retaliation on Seoul and Japan.

Over the past several weeks, Abe, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and other government officials, publicly and privately, have expressed concern about a possible North Korean crisis toward the end of this year. Indeed, there is speculation in Tokyo that the Trump administration will conduct a limited strike on North Korea to try to make Pyongyang return to the negotiation table for denuclearization or to make Kim Jong Un “come to his senses”— as U.S. Pacific Command Commander Harry Harris emphasizes — before Pyongyang completes its ICBM capability development. Leaving aside the president’s tweet that North Korea would be “totally destroyed,” Defense Secretary James Mattis hinted that Washington has military options that would not invite North Korean retaliation. But Tokyo and Seoul wonder if there is such an option.

The use of force is often considered the last resort, but sometimes this is not the case. The existence of massive North Korean heavy artillery along the demilitarized zone that could decimate Seoul have deterred U.S. administrations from the Clinton presidency on from conducting even a limited strike on North Korean military facilities to stop or delay its nuclear and missile development. In addition, given the rapid development of its ballistic missile capabilities, Pyongyang might launch missiles at Japan and Guam to prevent U.S. reinforcements. Concluding that past U.S. administrations’ policy favoring dialogue failed, however, the Trump administration might not hesitate to use military options on the Korean Peninsula.

The Trump administration has repeatedly announced that it will not seek regime change in Pyongyang, while demonstrating U.S. military power by dispatching multiple aircraft carriers and strategic bombers to conduct combined exercises with Japanese and South Korean naval and air forces. Washington might be sending a signal to Pyongyang by reassuring Kim Jong Un that he won’t be eliminated, while making sure that North Korea would be defeated if it overreacts. But given the lack of knowledge on North Korean military doctrine and the lack of communication with Pyongyang, there is a strong possibility of miscalculation, misunderstanding and misperception. North Korea’s military might be ordered to conduct all-out retaliation in response to even a limited strike, or Pyongyang might perceive such a strike as the prologue for an all-out war.

If a war starts with North Korea, there is no doubt that the U.S. would win. But Japan and South Korea might suffer massive damage, and if the damage resulted from Washington’s provocative actions, the U.S. would lose its alliances — the cornerstones for U.S. strategy in Asia — with them. Therefore, Trump should take an “Allies First” approach vis-a-vis North Korea.

His Asia tour is a good opportunity for him to listen to his counterparts in the region. Trump may emphasize America First on trade and investment, and disagree with Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in over how to reduce bilateral trade deficits, but he should not do so with regard to the North Korean threat. Trump should listen to Japan and South Korea’s perceptions and concerns. He should avoid creating the perception that he is making deals on North Korea with Chinese President Xi Jinping over the heads of America’s allies.

On the other hand, Japanese and South Koreans should not oppose U.S. military options. The Trump administration is right; past policy emphasizing engagement and dialogue failed. There is a need for new approach. Every option, including military, should be on the table and, when necessary, military options should be implemented. Otherwise deterrence and dissuasion will never succeed. The key to success is coordination and joint preparedness among Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul. The U.S. and the two allies need to coordinate diplomacy and post-conflict visions, while preparing joint contingency plans for offensive and defensive operations, noncombatant evacuation and refugee control. Abe should emphasize to Trump the importance of a legal foundation for any military options. The U.S. allies would accept preemption vis-a-vis an imminent threat from North Korea but would have difficulty supporting provocative actions that justify North Korean retaliation.

As Pyongyang shows no interest in denuclearization talks, coercive diplomacy now makes sense. Coupled with tightened sanctions and diplomatic containment, military options help create an environment for talks. But coercion requires caution. Only an allies-first policy will guide Trump to a prudent coercive diplomacy.

Tetsuo Kotani is a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. He covers Japanese security policy and the Japan-U.S. alliance.