- Reaffirming U.S. Alliances in the Asia-Pacific:A Japanese Perspective
From a Japanese perspective, the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific under the Trump administration seems to be far more robust than many in the region worrisomely speculated during the presidential election campaign. Despite Donald Trump's tough words on U.S. alliances in Asia and Europe as a presidential candidate, the administration's approach in East Asia, centering on the alliances with Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK), has been positive and pragmatic, endorsing the importance of the hub-and-spoke network of bilateral arrangements between the United States and Asian partners.1 Visits to Asia by Secretary of Defense James Mattis in February and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in March, followed by Vice President Mike Pence in April, have signaled that the United States will keep emphasizing its Asia policy and cooperation with allies and partners in the region.
This essay discusses, first, how Japan sees the Trump administration's commitment to Northeast Asian security; second, the implications of the Trump administration's Asia policy; and third, the outlook for the U.S.-Japan alliance in the near future.
The U.S. Commitment to Northeast Asian Security in the Trump Administration
The Trump administration has so far proved the United States' strong commitment and firm resolution to the peace and stability of Northeast Asia. In particular, the administration's willingness to cooperate with important players in the region, including China as well as U.S. allies Japan and the ROK, to address the threat posed by North Korea exemplifies its commitment to regional stability. For Japan, while serious concerns [End Page 13] remain regarding the future direction of China, whose rise might have both positive and negative impacts on the regional and global strategic environments, North Korea constitutes the paramount foreign threat to national security.
North Korea has been vigorously pursuing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs despite a series of UN resolutions.2 In 2016 alone, the country conducted its fourth and fifth nuclear tests and launched 24 missiles. Pyongyang has claimed that it is developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that could reach the United States.3 With the possibility of mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles, the danger posed by such programs is no longer regional but soon could directly threaten the United States. On March 6, 2017, North Korea simultaneously launched 4 missiles with a range of around one thousand kilometers, 3 of which landed in Japan's exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan. Ten days later, presumably in response to North Korea's accelerated missile and nuclear programs, Secretary Tillerson made it clear that "all options are on the table" to deal with North Korea's destabilizing acts against Japan. He further commented in Seoul on March 17 that "if they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that [military] option is on the table." 4 This statement was powerfully endorsed earlier by Secretary Mattis on February 3 when he stated that "any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming." 5 These words were followed by deployment of the carrier strike group headed by the USS Carl Vinson near the peninsula. Strategic bomber overflights, frequent port visits by U.S. Navy ships to the ROK, and joint exercises with Australia, the ROK, and Japan, among other actions, also demonstrate U.S. determination and capabilities on issues related to Northeast Asian security.
The U.S. attack against Syria on April 6 reinforced this message to North Korea and other concerned parties that the United States will not tolerate any action threatening the international community with the use of [End Page 14] weapons of mass destruction. This message was seemingly well understood by China and conveyed to North Korea. Indeed, one of the Chinese Communist Party's own international media outlets, the Global Times, openly warned North Korea and expressed China's reluctance to be involved in a military conflict, stating that "if Pyongyang's unwavering pursuit of its nuclear program continues and Washington...