On Thursday, South Korea said that it would abandon its military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan. With US pullback from the region – in March, caving to pressure from North Korea, the Trump administration announced that it would abandon joint US-South Korean military exercises – mixed with Trump’s chaotic approach to North Korea, tensions have continued to rise across South-East Asia.
At the same time, relations between Tokyo and Seoul have reached new lows in recent months. At the beginning of August, the Japanese government announced it was removing South Korea from the “whitelist” of countries that receive preferential treatment for the import of sensitive Japanese goods, the New York Times reported.
South Korean president Moon Jae-in hit back at the move, remarking darkly that “if Japan intentionally hurts our economy, it will also have to suffer big damage.”
I spoke to Brett Bruen, the president of consulting firm Global Situation Room and a former US diplomat who served as director of global engagement in president Obama’s White House, to get his key takeaways from the rapidly-escalating tensions between Japan and South Korea.
1) “While there have long existed tensions in the South Korea-Japan relationship, they were kept in check because of the dominate role played by the US across the Pacific. We were able to keep the temperature low and help dial it down when issues arose.”
2) “The Trump administration does not have an Asia strategy. They have abandoned American leadership in the region. Our allies have no assurance that we will be there when needed. As Yoda would observe, there has been a tremendous disturbance in the Force. Everyone is pretty much now forced to fend for themselves.”
3) “Trump has substituted foreign policy for personal feelings. He gets on with Kim Jong-un, so what the heck, let’s pursue peace. He is offended by Denmark dissing his designs on Greenland, trips off. [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe plays golf, so Japan’s pretty much been spared his Twitter fire.”
4) “This erratic, emotionally driven diplomacy has created great uncertainty and instability, partially across the Pacific. Leaders just don’t know where the United States stands on any given day.”
5) “Without question the unprecedented level of escalation in the traditional spat between Seoul and Tokyo is due directly to the phenomena of our entry into the post-American era. Washington is no longer playing referee, instead it has become a significant contributor to conflicts and crises – even where they never existed before, like Denmark.”
6) “We need to see others step up and fill the void. Canberra, Brussels, and even Ottawa need to up their game. They have to play a larger role regionally and globally, whereas previously there would have been a tendency to defer to the United States to provide the leadership in these kind of situations.”