Japan Trilateral Forum Day 2: Asian Regional Security

BRUSSELS — We’ve just concluded an expansive set of discussions on Northeast Asian security issues at GMF’s third Japan Trilateral Forum. Topics covered included China’s regional security interests, Russia’s role in the region, the Japan-U.S. alliance, and the North Korean nuclear threat.

The North Korean Nightmare

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a certain sense of despair surrounding the discussion of the North Korea threat — a session that in general raised more questions than it answered. Three successive U.S. presidents have already dealt in detail with this issue, and the stream of nuclear and missile tests over the past year should make North Korea the Trump Administration’s top foreign policy priority. Pyongyang has now crossed thresholds in its nuclear and missile programs that experts expected it to take years to achieve, and ongoing long-range missile development present a direct challenge to U.S. regional allies and growing threat to the U.S. homeland.

“Pyongyang has crossed thresholds in its nuclear and missile programs that experts expected it to take years to achieve”

However, acknowledging North Korea as a problem is easier than offering solutions — and this came through in the course of the discussion. There was some hope that the recent UN Security Council sanctions will have sufficient impact on the North Korean economy to bring it back to the negotiating table. South Korean and Japanese security cooperation and mutual interest in the THAAD missile defense system was also seen as a positive development in strengthening regional defense. Beyond recognizing that diplomatic solutions are preferable to unilateral U.S. military action, however, there was little consensus in paving a clear way forward on this issue.

What Does China Want in Asia?

How China responds to the U.S. election has been a topic of significant discussion over the past two days. Participants agreed that what China wanted pre-Trump is probably what it wants post-Trump. But how will Beijing pursue those objectives with a new president at the helm of the U.S.?

“What China wanted pre-Trump, is what China wants post-Trump”

On a basic level, China wants to exert a preponderance of power in the region. Trump’s election was initially perceived as a positive outcome for Beijing in that regard. His domestically focused agenda and lack of enthusiasm for alliance commitments could potentially create space for China to expand its sphere of influence. Whether Beijing has any interest in stepping in as leader of the Asian regional order in lieu of the United States, though, is unclear.

Yet China also values predictability in foreign policy, and Trump’s call to Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen caught Beijing off-guard. Whether intentional or not, the President-elect preempted China’s own strategy of testing new leaders’ resolve by issuing his own challenge to Beijing. Now on the back foot, Xi Jinping is forced to react to an initiative taken by the United States on an issue of great sensitivity to the mainland.

At the moment, China appears to be downplaying the call while it tries to figure out what it meant. But the incident has likely opened up a host of questions for China about what to expect from President Trump, not only on the question of Taiwan, but also on other regional security issues, including the DPRK.

The Japan-U.S. Alliance Under Trump

It is well known that Japan’s view of its security environment is influenced in crucial ways by the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Abe has previously called the U.S-Japan alliance an “alliance of hope;” a relationship built on shared values and a common vision of a liberal international order. But this mutual understanding was based on Obama’s worldview; one that Trump has explicitly rejected in favor of a more isolationist stance.

“The U.S.-Japan alliance is an alliance of hope”

Participants tended to agree that the outcome of Trump’s anti-alliance rhetoric is probably not going to be the complete abandonment of Japan, nor is it likely that Tokyo will seriously consider developing a nuclear weapon — a development for which the Japanese public has little appetite and would require Tokyo’s complete loss of faith in the U.S. extended deterrent.

If confidence in U.S. alliance commitments decreases, Japan will be forced to think more seriously about its own security policy — including ramping up its own domestic capability as well as working more closely with similarly-minded partners in Europe and Asia. There was a general agreement, however, that any changes in Japan’s defense forces would likely take place within the constraints of Japan’s existing constitution given continued opposition to revising Article 9: the “peace” clause that has governed Tokyo’s foreign policy for decades.

Japanese-Russian Rapprochement

Finally, we spent some time discussing Russia and how to view Moscow’s role in Asian security. One of the more notable shifts in Moscow’s regional strategy in recent years has been the marked improvement in the Russo-Japanese relationship. Prime Minister Abe in particular has invested a lot of time and energy in strengthening ties to Moscow and — though he would never admit this publicly — likely hopes that rapprochement with Russia will help check China’s rise. In this regard, Trump’s recent election may open a favorable window of opportunity for Japan to get even closer to Moscow given the President-elect’s more favorable opinion of Putin. On the other hand, the possibility of improved U.S.-Russian relations may reduce Russia’s sense of isolation, thereby diminishing the value of Japanese cooperation.

In this context, the Abe-Putin summit next week — the sixteenth of its kind — is highly anticipated. It will not only reveal the status of the two countries’ long-standing territorial dispute, but also Moscow’s appetite for strengthening ties with Japan in the wake of the U.S. election. In other words, pay attention to this meeting.

Check back soon for a final wrap up of the Forum’s key themes. You can also follow us on twitter at @GMFUS and #EUJapanUS.

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