Commentary / Japan

Erosion of America's reliability for allies

by Kuni Miyake

“So what?” was my reaction when I heard the president of the United States announce that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group, “died a coward” by detonating a suicide vest as U.S. special forces raided his hideout in northern Syria.

Al-Baghdadi has been an expendable figure especially since IS lost the territory it controlled in Syria. His death is symbolic at most, while what’s still most worrying is the fact that Washington changed the strategic landscape by abandoning the Syrian Kurds.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that the ramifications of the mistake U.S. President Donald Trump made are so grave that no leader of an ally or friend of the U.S. can ignore it. Almost immediately after the column was published, one of my closest friends in the U.S. sent me an email in which he said that my column “hit the nail on the head in describing the fears generated by this disgraceful decision and its broader policy implications.” Now I knew I was not alone in being alarmed about the U.S. president’s intuitive foreign policymaking.

Recently I chatted with my American friend online. The conversation was serious and profound, or at least we thought so. Our conversation covered not only the credibility of the U.S. alliance system but also its impact on Japan as well as the situation in the Korean Peninsula. The following is a summary of it.

My friend expressed surprise that his other Japanese friends were mostly silent on this matter. Nobody questioned the credibility of the U.S. alliance. They just praise the U.S.-Japan security treaty but rarely raise the issue of Syrian Kurds or its potential ramification on our bilateral alliance.

I told him that Japan is much better off probably because Tokyo can offer the use of bases at Yokosuka, Sasebo and Kadena to Washington, without which the U.S. cannot compete with China in the Western Pacific. Still, I was almost appalled to hear the news of the U.S. withdrawal from northeast Syria.

My U.S. friend said he was also surprised by the unpleasant reality on the Korean Peninsula, and that the Japanese he talked to didn’t seem to be concerned about what is really happening in North and South Korea.

Some Japanese aren’t silent but many others are. In my recent speeches I always talk about the three shocks caused by the first U.S.-North Korea summit on June 12, 2018, in Singapore. It was a fiasco for three reasons and the decision to hold it, which was made out of “intuition, coincidence and misjudgment,” has led us into uncharted waters.

First the summit legitimized the internationally isolated grandson of the founder of a poor but proud regime in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Second, the meeting authorized the North Korean development of nuclear weapons. Finally, the U.S. lost its military option in the peninsula because the South Koreans no longer cooperate.

My U.S. friend noted there’s something common among Trump, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in: They all want the U.S.-South Korea security alliance to be terminated for different reasons. China also wants the alliance to disappear, although Beijing doesn’t want to abruptly change the status quo on the Korean Peninsula.

Beijing may in fact wish to live with a nuclear-armed Pyongyang. By the same token, I wonder if Washington may try to settle for less with North Korea. Washington may try to announce a “historic achievement” on the North Korean nuclear issue by accepting a phased but only nominal denuclearization of North Korea.

My friend said he was confident that China now can live with North Korea if Pyongyang refrains from conducting intercontinental ballistic missile test launches, nuclear bomb tests, and other such actions. He added that since 2020 is an election year, he would be surprised if Trump did not give up the original goals of complete, verifiable, irreversible or even final, fully verified denuclearization.

What’s happening in South Korea is also worrying. My take is that Seoul’s foreign policy has changed, and it will never return to the ironclad anti-communist military alliance that existed among the U.S., South Korea and Japan. For Seoul, the Cold War era is over and it’s time for all Koreans to be the owners of their history for the first time. In fact, I told this to South Koreans when I visited Seoul a month ago, and the reaction of some of them was, “Oh, now you know that!”

Regarding South Korea’s decision to terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan, my U.S. friend pointed out that Seoul did not do that to spite Japan. He said he was confident that the Moon administration is not seriously interested in maintaining a robust and credible military alliance with the U.S. anymore. That, he said, is the “new normal” in Northeast Asia today.

What I call the “regime of 1953,” which was created after the 1953 armistice agreement to end the Korean War, is now eroding. Japan’s Self-Defense forces were established in 1954 and the Japan-U.S. security treaty was revised in 1960. Japan’s current national security policy is based on this regime. I am afraid that it is eroding.

My friend concurred that we have enough reasons to be worried. Japan, he said, may need to change its traditional security policy, while there are many reasons why Trump’s presidency needs to end — and probably this is just the latest.

This conversation is to be continued.

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

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