By freelance journalist Junnosuke Sato
Three days after President Donald Trump’s heated argument with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders at the G7 Summit, he was shaking hands with the North Korean leader in Singapore. This image has aroused growing doubts about Japan’s foreign and security policies, which are becoming increasingly dependent on the U.S.
This is because the foundation of the alliance for freedom and democracy, which stands by the universal democratic values of freedom, human rights, and rule of law, is steadily being destroyed by Trump-style “deal diplomacy” based solely on a calculation of loss and gain. Even an ally could be abandoned if no deal is possible, while compromises could be made in deals with dictatorial states.
It is becoming a real possibility that if Trump finds the role of leader of the free world not worthwhile, he could abandon this role and reduce U.S. involvement in East Asia. Even the aides of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who takes pride in his close relationship with Trump, are beginning to call for strengthening Japan’s defense and diplomatic capabilities and independence from the U.S.
Shocking announcement of suspension of U.S.-ROK exercises
Two days after the U.S.-DPRK summit on June 12, officials of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) were doing the rounds briefing ruling party officials, Diet members, and others. The media criticized the historic summit for “not including any concrete measures” and “excessive concessions to North Korea.”
An ad hoc opinion poll conducted on experts by Genron NPO, an organization which counts among its members Yasushi Akashi, former special representative of the UN secretary general, and former Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Ichiro Fujisaki, also showed that 50.5% of the 285 respondents thought that Workers’ Party of Korea Chairman Kim Jong Un won in this summit.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government, which wants to keep in step with the Trump administration, scrambled to spread the view that the summit was not a failure. A ruling party Diet member revealed that “MOFA gave us the explanation that while an agreement on complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) was not reached, the fact that a meeting was held between the two leaders, who were wide apart in their views, in itself is an achievement.” This Diet member also said that they were told that “security guarantees for the Kim Jong Un regime are premised on concrete actions toward denuclearization, and each item in the agreement between the U.S. and North Korea is conditional.”
However, an official actually involved with Japan’s foreign and security policies was very concerned. What was particularly shocking is Trump’s announcement in his news conference on the suspension of joint U.S.-ROK military exercises, citing high cost as the reason.
Joint military exercises are not conducted only to enhance technical capability for rapid response. They require meticulous preparations, and large-scale ones involve a coordination process of more than six months. A Self-Defense Forces source pointed out that this cooperation process “deepens the bonds of the alliance. It is unthinkable that they would be suspended just because they are too costly.”
It was also astounding that the joint statement signed after the summit included an agreement to return the remains of the U.S. soldiers who died in the Korean War. A Japanese government source observed that this was meant to lead to a declaration of the end of the Korean War, to be followed by the conclusion of a U.S.-DPRK peace agreement. This will weaken the rationale for stationing U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).
Trump even mentioned the possibility of reducing or withdrawing USFK. He even stated during an interview with Fox News on the next day, June 13, that he would like to “withdraw the USFK as soon as possible because they cost a lot of money.”
Japan to confront China, Russia directly
While it is usually thought that the stationing of the USFK, which consists mainly of ground forces, is meant to prevent North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, there is a U.S. air base in Osan south of Seoul and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile systems are deployed in Seongju in the south. The air force has a wide operational range and THAAD radars are also able to maintain surveillance on China and Russia. The USFK plays a role in providing deterrence to Northeast Asia.
The reduction or withdrawal of USFK would result in Japan losing the ROK as a buffer zone and directly facing China and Russia, countries which hold very different values. A former senior Defense Ministry official voiced concern that “the defense line of the democratic camp will move south from the 38th parallel to the Tsuhima Strait and Japan will be at the front line.”
Abe had conveyed Japan’s concerns many times before Trump met with Kim. He pressed Trump to take up the abduction issue and the discarding of missiles capable of attacking Japan and not to discuss the withdrawal or downsizing of USFK, which would weaken deterrence.
Yet the discarding of missiles, not even the ICBMs, was not included in the joint statement. While Trump disclosed at his news conference that he took up the abduction issue, he linked this to economic aid from Japan, and did not discuss this as a human rights issue. He even hinted at the USFK’s withdrawal in this news conference.
A joint meeting of the LDP Foreign Affairs and National Defense Divisions and the Headquarters for North Korean Abductions was held on June 15. Many Diet members questioned the outcome of the U.S.-DPRK summit.
Katsuyuki Kawai, special adviser to the LDP president for foreign affairs who is close to Abe, expressed the harshest opinion: “The President, who talked really tough to the leaders of the free world at the G7 summit, turned around and hugged the shoulder of the leader of the dictatorial state North Korea,” he said. “This precisely symbolized the true nature of the alliance today.”
Even the withdrawal of USFJ conceivable
Looking back, there had been signs of the Trump administration’s taking the values shared by the free world lightly. The joint statement issued after the first Japan-U.S. summit held after Trump’s inauguration in February 2017 did not mention freedom, democracy, the rule of law, or so forth.
U.S. diplomats have had serious concerns about the Trump administration’s lack of interest in defending the values of the free world.
There had indeed been moves even during the Obama administration for the war-weary U.S. to stop serving as the world’s policeman. While President Barack Obama did ask allies to take up the responsibilities that the U.S. could not fulfill and make self-help efforts, he did not go as far as destroying alliance relationships.
“The alliance of the free world is an alliance sharing common values,” Kawai stated at the LDP meeting on June 15. “What became clear at the U.S.-DPRK summit is that the essence of the alliance is now based on deals.”
The Japanese government is revising its National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), which will determine defense policies in the next 10 years, by the end of this year. This is being done even though the current NDPG is still new because of changes in the security environment resulting from North Korea’s rapid development of nuclear arms and missiles.
However, a former defense minister asserted that “the main cause of the changes in Japan’s security environment is the advent of the Trump administration rather than North Korea.”
The Japanese government has already decided to introduce cruise missiles. It will consider converting the destroyer “Izumo” into an aircraft carrier and procuring F-35B fighters to be used on this ship under the next NDPG. Both these steps will enable use of long-range offensive weapons and may run counter to Japan’s purely defensive security policy. Yet the above former defense minister said that “the NDPG should be revised with the consciousness that the U.S. may withdraw from the Korean Peninsula and Japan in the future.”
However, Japan’s fiscal situation makes unbridled defense spending out of the question. A Kantei source pointed out that “becoming a military power like prewar Japan is not an option, and possession of nuclear arms is inconceivable.” He added: “If Trump does not understand the situation in Asia, the Prime Minister will explain it to him as many times as necessary. At the same time, our only option is to strengthen Japan’s diplomatic capability.” (Slightly abridged)