Q11 What does the East Asia strategic picture look like in context of South Korean, Japanese and US relations?

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New Year’s Eve 2019 Forecast (What’s This?)

My forecast is that little changes to the core of US relationships with South Korea and Japan over 2020. Despite the pressures of trade wars, President Trump’s demands for greater security-cost sharing, and other pressures – the incentives for collaboration remain just as strong if not growing stronger. China remains a strategic risk in the region – especially as it seeks to become the dominant regional hegemon through expansion into the South Chinese Sea etc.  Indeed, this is the only region I can think of where equally strong potential competitors backed by a global super power surround a growing regional hegemon. This is unlike the neighborhood immediately around Russia, Turkey, or Iran which tends to be weaker neighbors no one’s willing to strategically invest in. And North Korea remains a wild-card of a potentially catastrophic nature.

The big change here won’t be in the relationship between the countries, but in the development and projection of military capabilities by both South Korea and Japan independent of US efforts.  Not only in the near space but the far space. For example, for the first time in forever Japan is sending a naval contingent to the Persian Gulf to protect its own shipping, after having lost the tanker earlier in the summer. These kinds of operations are what countries developing their military capability do to “exercise-up” to a more competent level: they intervene off the Horn of Africa against Somali pirates, they join well established patrolling regimes with big brother nearby. These are the signs of a country ready to become more assertive with it’s military.

From a systems perspective the growth-pattern of the stressors that Trump is introducing into the relationship are being matched and exceeded by the growth-pattern of the incentives to stay in the relationship. If one of those thing changes, for example North Korea finally resolves or China decides to play nice (neither of which I see happening) then the calculus abruptly changes, and the stressors may exceed the benefits.


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