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Northeast Asia as seen from Okinawa

by Kuni Miyake

I am writing this article in the Hyakuna area of Okinawa. Recently, whenever I visit Okinawa, I try to stay at a superb hideout hotel called the Hyakuna Garan, which is located at the southern tip of Okinawa’s main island facing the Pacific Ocean. When you have more money to spend than you usually do, I strongly recommend you stay there.

The hotel is built at the top of a cliff overlooking beautiful shoals. The area is very quiet because it is far away from any facilities and areas used by the U.S. forces on Okinawa. The hotel is one of my favorite places simply because you’ll never be bothered by the noise or troubles caused by the U.S. marines and air force on the island.

When I was in Taiwan last week, upon the request of a budding Japanese journalist I contributed a short commentary on the Okinawa gubernatorial election to a website that he runs. My comments might have embarrassed the young liberal writer, because I compared Okinawa with Taiwan from a different perspective.

The strategic environment surrounding Taiwan, I stated in my article, has not basically changed since 1972 when U.S. President Richard Nixon visited Beijing to normalize relations with China. Particularly in recent years, Taiwan has been exposed to strong and effective political pressure, material and immaterial, from Beijing.

The island entity cannot maintain its status quo without help from the United States. However, unlike before 1972, Washington’s commitment to defend Taiwan is only secured by a U.S. domestic law: the Taiwan Relations Act. Taipei must be jealous of Okinawa, which is protected by the Japan-U.S. mutual security treaty.

On Okinawa, I continued to write, there are voices seeking to undermine the stability provided by the U.S. forces deployed on the island and now this became one of the issues on the election agenda. To Taiwan, this may look like a suicidal attempt to weaken the precious deterrence against hostile actions by Okinawa’s potential adversaries.

The Okinawans do not seem to care and people in the rest of Japan are not willing to share Okinawa’s portion of the security burden, either. Since Taiwan is much closer to China than Okinawa is, Taipei must make much tougher strategic decisions under democracy. I hope the Okinawans are aware of this cruel reality, I concluded.

The Okinawa gubernatorial election was won by a candidate who has been adamantly opposed to the plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma to the Henoko area of Nago. Arriving in Okinawa just a week after election day, however, I see that nothing has changed dramatically so far. Is this the deceptive calm in the eye of a typhoon? Never mind, anyway. The election is over.

I thought I could enjoy a total blackout of unpleasant news on my late summer vacation here at Hyakuna. Unfortunately, since my arrival, dozens of emails interrupted my short but invaluable holidays. Friends ask for my take on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang and Beijing. Alas, I must write something now.

My Asia-hand friends in Washington and elsewhere all seem to agree on the problems the U.S.-North Korea negotiations now face. Pompeo’s visit, as they have predicted, has not produced anything substantial so far. I sent a note to them, “I agree but I hope I am wrong.”

Four months have passed since the June 12 summit took place between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and, as one email I received stated, “We still don’t even have a common definition of seemingly straightforward terms such as ‘denuclearization’ and ‘Korean Peninsula.’ “

This says it all. We started with “maximum pressure” and then “rapid denuclearization,” and now we are appeasing North Korea.

Trump seems to be only interested in the date and venue for the next U.S.-North Korea summit. Life goes on, while all his foreign policy advisers, probably including Pompeo, silently disagree. Other parties are getting involved in this new regional power game, although they are dreaming different dreams, as follows.

First, while U.S. professional negotiators focus on the definition of “denuclearization,” its timetables or its conditions, Trump’s top priority in East Asia seems to be a cold war against China and not necessarily denuclearization by North Korea in the foreseeable future. North and South Korean leaders seem to echo the U.S. president.

Second, Tokyo will continue to be the capital that is most concerned about North Korean medium-range ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. No matter how often Japan and the U.S. reconfirm their unified position vis-a-vis North Korea, Japan may be destined to share the position of the U.S. no matter what it may be.

Third, while less concerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons than Japan is, China is trying to take advantage of the situation to drive a wedge between the U.S. on the one hand, and Japan and South Korea on the other. At the same time, China may also be concerned that the U.S. could drive a wedge between China and North Korea.

North Korea’s strategy seems to be quite successful so far. That is, making the best use of South Korea’s optimistic president, while improving relations with the U.S. without making many substantial concessions — probably until the last minute — on its nuclear weapons program. Trump is very easy to deal with, at least so far.

Finally, South Korea has no other options. President Moon Jae-in wants no war with Trump against Pyongyang. South Korea is least concerned about the North’s nuclear weapons because it is confident that the North will not use them against the South. The South Koreans might even hope that the North’s nuclear weapons will eventually be theirs when the two countries are united.

What Japan should be most concerned about now is a premature declaration of the end of the Korean War, which could have serious irreversible implications for the rationale of the U.S. forces’ presence in South Korea and eventually for the U.S. and allied deterrence capabilities in East Asia.

That is what I call the beginning of the end of “the 1953 Regime.” This geopolitical transformation could inevitably create a new strategic environment surrounding the happy and stable former Kingdom of Ryukyu. No matter what the U.S. president does in this region, God bless the Okinawans.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.