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Fumio Ota

【#523】Get rid of Positioning U.S. as Pike and Japan as Shield

Fumio Ota / 2018.06.28 (Thu)

June 25, 2018

     At a press conference after his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, U.S. President Donald Trump offered to suspend U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises as they are “expensive” and “provocative.” He even said he wanted to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea at some point. The U.S.-North Korea joint statement calls for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula rather than that of North Korea, indicating a potential ban on U.S. nuclear deterrence extended to South Korea, as there exists no nuclear weapon in the South.
     President Trump praised Mr. Kim as “very talented.” When welcoming Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida last year, President Trump described the Chinese leader as “a very good person.” Given these remarks, Trump could suspend Japan-U.S. joint military exercises for the same reason as for U.S.-South Korea war games. Remarks by many American military officers I have contacted indicate that such development is unlikely. However, they cannot ignore the supreme commander, as indicated by the latest incident.
     Traditionally, Japan has depended on the United States as a pike (providing nuclear deterrence and striking power) and served as a defensive shield under its “exclusively defense-oriented policy,” conducting joint military exercises with the United States to fulfill Japan’s national defense. However, the time might have come for Japan to develop its own striking capabilities in preparation for the United States’ unilateral suspension of the joint military exercises.
A good chance for Japan to enhance defense capabilities
     President Trump’s unpredictability provides Japan with not only misfortunes but also chances. Although his predecessors had accepted a lightly armed Japan, President Trump has frequently criticized Germany and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies for small defense spending of less than 2% of gross domestic product. He can be easily expected to complain about Japan’s defense spending, less than 1% of GDP.
     Reportedly, President Trump has asked his aides why Japan and South Korea do not resolve North Korea issue by themselves. Last year when a North Korean ballistic missile flew over Japan, he expressed his dissatisfaction by questioning why Japan did not intercept the missile.
     Such approach by the U.S. president may be taken as giving Japan a good chance to have striking capabilities.
     U.S. President Jimmy Carter had proposed the withdrawal of U.S. ground troops from South Korea as a campaign promise and given up on the promise in the face of opposition at home and abroad. Anti-communist hardliner Park Chung Hee, who had then ruled South Korea, could have armed his country with nuclear weapons if U.S. forces withdrew. Current leftist South Korean President Moon Jae In may welcome the potential withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Complete dismantlement of ballistic missiles is far away
     The U.S.-North Korea joint statement, though advocating the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, made no mention of biological and chemical weapons that North Korea is alleged to have. How to treat ballistic missiles was not mentioned, either. North Korea has only made a verbal promise to close a missile engine test facility. North Korea’s dismantlement of intercontinental ballistic missiles reaching the U.S. mainland would be a matter of great concern to the “America First” president. However, Trump may ask Japan and South Korea to undertake the costly resolution regarding North Korean short- and medium-range missiles capable of attacking the two countries after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Unless Japan is prepared to defend itself on its own, there may be terrible consequences.

Fumio Ota is a JINF Planning Committee Member and retired Vice Admiral of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force.