This past Friday, four retired military leaders (2 from the United States and 2 from Japan) took part in a Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) panel to discuss what was frequently described as a “maturing” US-Japan alliance. While one of the panelists referred to the partnership between the two countries as more of a “rear support” alliance in years past, it was agreed that Chinese, North Korean, and other complications have now moved the strategic relationship directly to the front-line. With radical geopolitical and geoeconomic uncertainty, and four of the five biggest economies in the world in proximity to Japan, any major regional outbreak would have massive impacts on the global economy.
In the 2 hour discussion, the panel touched on several key areas, including the North Korean challenge, the preparedness of the alliance forces around Japan and South Korea, general challenges faced by the alliance, and considerations related to China. Out of the wealth of knowledge shared between the panelists, some of the key takeaways on these subjects are distilled below.
With North Korea testing a new ICBM the same day of the panel, the country was unsurprisingly a major focus of the panel discussion. Generally speaking, the threats of both missile attacks (particularly with North Korea’s recent demonstration of mobile-launched ICBM capabilities) and cyberattacks were emphasized as an indication of the need for improved communication and joint preparedness between alliance forces. These threats are being amplified by the fact that Kim Jong Un is doing two things at a much more frequent pace than his predecessors: testing missiles and eliminating people in his regime. This ruthless pace is leading towards a general belief that North Korea’s goal of getting a nuclear warhead on top of an ICBM could happen much sooner than the timeframe that was expected as little as six months ago. Somewhat balancing the general fears, however, is a feeling among security experts that Kim Jong Un is not suicidal, and his desire to stay in charge is likely outweighing his desire to actually launch any missiles at enemy targets. This feeling, combined with a total lack of good military options and the knowledge of North Korea’s atrocious track record of honoring any negotiated commitments, are all factors that are keeping the situation at an icy standstill.
Critically, however, multiple panelists pointed out the importance of being prepared for a North Korean collapse as well, not just an attack or provocation. If the regime were to collapse and South Korean forces were to move in and attempt to unify the North and South, what would be the result? How would a population that is largely in the dark, technologically speaking, and firmly indoctrinated in Kim Jong Un’s way, respond to any outsiders coming in? Is there a chance that they have been conditioned for an insurgency of sorts? Beyond any chance of insurgency, perhaps more likely would be yet another wave of refugees and potential economic depression (the panelists pointed to economic struggles following German unification as a historical example).
Largely to alleviate some of the potential issues alluded to above, the panelists were in agreement on the need to push more information into North Korea, both for the elites and for the general population. One member of the panel stated that about one-fifth of the North Korean population now has access to cell phones, a proportion that is actually quite a significant development. This is viewed as an opportunity to show North Koreans the different ways of life beyond their own borders.
On the subject of sanctions, the panelists repeatedly referred to the need to be more involved, citing a concern that too much of the responsibility was falling on China.
Although there are deemed to be “no good military options,” the panelists agreed that if the alliance’s hand is forced, any effective preemptive military action will take weeks of preparation and consultation between the nations, emphasizing the importance of efficient communications and training. On the Japanese side, ground-based missile defense systems and coordination with the Pacific Fleet were two of the most critical preparations discussed. These counter measures complement the US troops present in the region (about 28,000 in South Korea and 54,000 in Japan). Additionally, trilateral information sharing practices between South Korea, the US, and Japan are improving. All of the panelists seemed to agree that intelligence is strong, and they do not anticipate any forces being caught off guard by any North Korean action. Specifically, it was stated that there are very solid plans in place to respond to artillery coming in to Seoul, and although there would be significant damage initially, it is not believed that it would be catastrophic.
Panelists from both countries also strongly agreed that Japan does not need to build its own nuclear weapons, and believed that doing so would only signal to China and others that the alliance has faults and is perceived to be too weak in its current state.
As alluded to above, any realignment of US forces in the region runs the risk of signalling weakness or damage to the alliance, an issue that makes reevaluating any current strategies a very touchy endeavor. Beyond placements of military force, there is of course the general challenge of matching US interests with Japanese interests, and furthermore with Chinese interests when attempting to jointly deal with the North Korean threat. Further complicating things are some differences between the US and Japan with regard to views on Russia and economic interactions with China. Additionally, while Japan-South Korea military relations were described as strong, the political relations between the two countries leave something to be desired.
While North Korea dominated the discussion, any talks on the US-Japan alliance would be incomplete without sufficient attention paid to China. One difficulty that was repeatedly referred to, in addition to the general economic challenge from a strong China, was the need to rely heavily on Beijing to figure out how to effectively put pressure on Kim Jong Un. One panelist had a particularly interesting perspective: if China wants to see a weakened relationship between the US and Japan, the alliance could pressure China into more effective action against North Korea by demonstrating that Kim Jong Un’s actions are actually making the US-Japan alliance stronger. To illustrate the point at play here, one panelist cited how China, in a very self-serving offer, had proposed to North Korea that North Korea freeze its nuclear program in exchange for the US and Japan freezing military exercises (something that China would of course be amenable to). More effective pressure put on China could lead to proposals with benefits for the US-Japan alliance as well, rather than just for China itself.
In general, the panelists referred to a more general concern with China’s technological competition, more so than any military concerns. Panelists from both sides seemed to be comfortable with US and Japanese abilities to make aggression an unattractive option for China.
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