The main issue of the February 2019 US President Donald Trump/North Korea Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un summit was the Korean “denuclearization”. However, the USA and North Korea attribute different meanings to this word. For the former it means, at best, to denuclearize NK with an economic swap. For the latter, it means to erase any nuke tools in the peninsula, including the American. It will produce, as by product of the cancelled NK nuke threat, the weakening of the main “official” reason of the US military presence in Japan, downgrading one of the key anti-Chinese strongholds. So, it was no surprise that the summit in Vietnam was abruptly cut short as the two countries failed to reach an agreement. It is a very complex issue. Basically, the two leaders need to stay engaged letting the will of dialogue pave the way of an agreement in the long run. Meanwhile, taking what is at stake for strategic US requirements and for NK-China relations needs, they need time to set properly both political systems to shape a new strategic area framework. This could be a litmus test for US influence in the Far East and a key passage for the new balance of powers. Kim Jong-un knows he has to move carefully; NK is a crock pot in the middle of iron pots (the USA and China). He had the chance to rebuild his low political and international credibility with a historical project: the Korean reunification. Washington has to show the old sheriff is still in town. Not for fate, the US Navy presence in the Taiwan strait has been increasing after the implementation of the FONO (Freedom of Navigation Operation) policy in South China Sea.
Trump Thursday’s statements showed this cautious attitude: “I’ve been saying very much from the beginning that speed is not that important to me,” and “I very much appreciate no testing of nuclear rockets, missiles, any of it. Very much appreciate it” stresses the long run political approach at the matter. Kim, as well, took several questions from American reporters, something unprecedented. Asked if he is willing and ready to denuclearize, Kim responded, “If I’m not willing to do that I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Trump’s will to overthrow the “old globalist order” provide some strategic attachments. The past US Far East policy was simple: to inflate, thanks even to the media system, the “PyongYang danger” even if North Korean missile vectors are low tech, Ukrainian made, and several anti-missile US technologies allow Washington to deny or stop any threat efforts on the launch pad.
We have to study the post-WW II US presence in the Pacific area to understand the “gear” that amplified “dangers” in that area with the purpose of justifying a sound US military presence, especially in Japan. In the big challenge between the US and China, Tokyo will play a key role as a US ally. However, Japan has to change its Constitution to rebuild a military power useful to flank Washington’s strategic policy in the Pacific. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution (Nihonkokukenpō dai kyū-jō) is a rule in the national code of Japan outlawing “war as a means to settle international disputes involving the state.” Japanese public opinion does not support such political needs. Many people recognized the role Article 9 has played in maintaining the nation’s pacifist stance, with 75 percent of respondents saying the clause has enabled the country to avoid becoming embroiled in conflicts abroad since World War II. Of course after Kim’s (Kim Jong-un) muscle flexing, the Japanese had concerns about their future. The new Kim’s appeasement approach brings new problems that Tokyo government has to face. Japan has to tackle a twofold policy. On one side, Japan is a tamed US ally; on the other side, the political elite has to manage a public opinion who does not bear the US military presence in Japan any longer. Last December, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe missed the chance to start the debate on revising constitution because of an opposition step back.
Still, the Japanese remain sharply divided over whether to amend the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, with supporters of a change slightly outnumbering opponents amid concerns over North Korea and surely the main concern of China’s military buildup, a Kyodo News survey showed. According to another mail-in survey, which was conducted ahead of Wednesday’s 70th anniversary of the postwar Constitution’s enactment, 49 percent of respondents said Article 9 must be revised while 47 percent opposed such a change.
However, here is another critical issue in Japan: the US military presence in Okinawa. As it happens all around the world, military bases often bring sound pollution and environmental degradation. US personnel stationed at the Kadena Airbase, Okinawa, and other US military installations have on occasion been charged with serious crimes, including rape and murder. Military facilities also eat up space that could be used for local development projects. Opinion polls suggest that more than 75 percent of Okinawans would like to see the US presence on their islands removed or reduced. So the renewal of a military deal is a political issue. Washington learned from the past how proper management of local authorities is a critical matter. The US has lost the strategic base of Subic Bay in the Philippines because of a diplomatic blunder. All these issues need time in order to be reshaped.
President Trump has raised the stake on the table of US-China trade to achieve better conditions. We will see the final outcome of the tax war in the next Xi Jinping-Trump meeting. Also, the US president would like to change perspective in the Pacific region, keeping the same American interest’s goal: Beijing must not became a “deep blue” power. Basically, it looks like the end of US multilateralism.
Pierre Chiartano is internationally known senior journalist and Contributing Editor of Blitz