Is US ready to leave its Best Asian ally?

US-Japan-Korea(s) Alliance & Spykman’s Vision

In 1942, when U.S. marines were engaged in brutal island combat with the Japanese, with no end in sight, Nicholas J. Spykman, a Dutch American strategist who taught at Yale University, foresaw a postwar alliance between the United States and Japan against China, then a critical U.S. wartime ally. Japan, he argued, would be both loyal and useful: It would need the United States to protect the sea lanes so it could import food and oil, while its large population of consumers would form the basis of a strong trade relationship. China, on the other hand, he said, would eventually emerge from the war as a powerful and dangerous continental power, which the United States would need to balance against. Spykman also indicated that Japan would be the equivalent of Great Britain with respect to mainland Asia: a large, offshore ally of the United States.

Spykman, who died of cancer the following year, never lived to see his predictions enacted. In fact, it was a vision that would both define and stabilize Asia, granting it peace and economic prosperity for nearly three-quarters of a century. U.S. President Richard Nixon’s opening to China in 1972 put a wrinkle in that vision by moving the United States closer to China in order to balance against the Soviet Union. But the U.S.-Japan alliance nevertheless remained the bedrock of Asian stability. Without America’s partnership with Japan, the Nixon administration’s diplomatic coup in Beijing could not even have been conceived.

Spykman’s vision—so clairvoyant at the time he uttered it—may seem more relevant than ever today amid the ongoing trade spat between Washington and Beijing, even if relatively few today remember his name. Yet Spykman’s Asian order is in fact now starting to crumble. This is because Asia in the past decade has undergone remarkable transformation. The changes have been incremental and spread over several countries, so few realize that we are entering a new era—one that will feature a more assertive yet more internally turbulent China, coupled with a fracturing American alliance system and a U.S. Navy that is less dominant than it has been in recent decades. 

Currently, no part of Asia is in play as much as the Korean Peninsula. The unintended consequence of Trump’s somewhat confused commencement of talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is that the latter and South Korea have jump-started a dialogue of their own. That dialogue will have its own logic and trajectory over time, leading in the direction of a Pyongyang-Seoul peace treaty and the eventual removal of more than 23,000 U.S. troops from South Korea. Don’t say it can’t happen. Divided-country scenarios in the 20th century had a tendency to end in unity: North and South Vietnam, West and East Germany, North and South Yemen. If this ever happens on the Korean Peninsula, as I’ve written elsewhere, the principal loser will be Japan.

Japan has required a divided Korean Peninsula for its own security, because a united Greater Korea, precisely because of Tokyo’s brutal colonization from 1910 to 1945, to say nothing of the legacy of World War II itself, would instinctively be anti-Japanese. The recent dramatic escalation of trade tensions between South Korea and Japan, itself aggravated by wartime Japan’s policy of forced labor and sexual slavery, is but a taste of what political tensions might one day erupt between a newly united Korea and Japan. Indeed, by choosing a policy of zero-sum bilateralism with each Asian country rather than articulating a regional vision, Trump has opened up a Pandora’s box of issues that can set U.S. allies against each other—with China the winner. 

Japan must now prepare for a future that features increasingly strengthened Chinese air and sea forces, the possibility of fewer U.S. troops in Northeast Asia, and the ability in the next decade of China to defeat Japan in a war in the East China Sea: China currently bides its time there, unwilling so far to risk a sustained conflict with the extremely capable Japanese navy. 

This all occurs in the context of a U.S. foreign and security policy that appears less dependable than at any time since World War II. For it is the erosion of constancy in decision-making that most threatens America’s reputation for power in Asia and elsewhere. By turning his back on alliance-building, famously signaled early in his presidency by abrogating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump has weakened the management framework required for inhibiting military escalation at a time of complex interactions between high-end weapons systems across Asia. The mutual confidence and implicit understandings that joined the United States with its allies in Asia have been seriously diluted. Credibility is the most important thing a great power or a person can have!

Robert D. Kaplan is a managing director of global macro at Eurasia Group. He is the author, most recently, of The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century.

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