The Hanoi talks ended in deadlock. Both sides – represented by U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – showed their anger by refusing to shake hands. The media labeled the talks a failure. But I’ve been involved in a number of negotiations in my life, and I see this as a normal part of the process. At some point, all parties will take positions designed to test the other side’s hunger for a deal, and prudent negotiators know that showing hunger can be devastating. So, ending the negotiation, particularly with a show of anger, is routine. At the same time, mutual rejection can be genuine, and now each side is trying to figure out how serious the other is. Establishing that you are prepared to walk away from the table is important – but sometimes the deal falls apart as a result.
Where Things Stand
War with North Korea is not a good option for the U.S. There’s the danger of artillery fire close to Seoul, the uncertainty of the location of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and the U.S. aversion to the idea of getting bogged down in another war this century. North Korea, on the other hand, knows that one thing that would trigger a U.S. pre-emptive nuclear strike would be to develop weapons that can reach the U.S., and it wants to avoid such a strike at all costs. So, this failed negotiation leaves a reality in which war is not likely, giving both sides room for obstinacy.
The other major players in the region must now calculate their courses. For China and Russia, there’s little downside to the United States’ attention being diverted to North Korea. The more the U.S. feels under pressure to attend to other issues, the less it can focus on China and Russia. But it’s not clear whether the Hanoi outcome helps or hurts these two. On the one hand, the U.S. and North Korea are furious at each other. On the other hand, if this results in a frozen conflict, the U.S. can spare attention for others. The logic is that China and Russia will push North Korea to more overt moves to draw Washington’s focus. But North Korea has created room to maneuver for itself, and a cold distance from the United States serves it well.
For the U.S., the years since 9/11 have forcibly displayed the limits of its military power. The U.S. is very good at destroying enemy armies, but it is very bad at occupying enemy countries where the citizens’ morale has not been crushed (think Germany or Japan during World War II). In Iraq, for example, the U.S. expected Iraqis to welcome the Americans. Some did, some were indifferent and some resisted. The resistance was prepared to absorb substantial casualties; this was their country, and they had nowhere else to go. The U.S., quite reasonably, was not prepared for high casualties, as Iraq was not a fundamental, long-term, American interest. The local forces understood the social and physical terrain, while the U.S. had limited familiarity. The initial attacks were successful. The occupation was a mess.
Thus, out of necessity, the U.S. has adopted a strategy that draws down its forces and that is extremely cautious about engagements where it cannot crush civilian morale through World War II-style bombing and blockade. Even if confident in its ability to break a conventional or nuclear force, the U.S. has no appetite for occupation. The strategy since World War II, built on the assumption that U.S. conventional forces can defeat any foe and pacify the country, is being abandoned. And in the case of the Hanoi talks, the U.S. is following a new strategy of diplomatic deadlock without recourse to the insertion of force.
We understand therefore the North Korean, Chinese, Russian and U.S. positions. (South Korea, of course, wants a stable balance on the Korean Peninsula.) The country whose strategy is uncertain is Japan.
Japan’s Next Move
The major question that has emerged from the Hanoi talks is what Japan will do now. Japan is the world’s third-largest economy. It has a stable and homogeneous population, a substantial military force and an enormous capacity to increase that force.
The U.S. has decided to accept that North Korea is a nuclear state, so long as none of its nuclear weapons can reach the U.S. mainland. This completely destabilizes Japan’s strategy. Under that strategy, first imposed by the U.S. and happily embraced by Japan, the U.S. guarantees Japanese national security. The U.S., in exchange, has been able to use Japan as a base from which to project force across the Korean Peninsula, threaten China and block Russia’s Vladivostok fleet from accessing the Pacific Ocean. Japan, unencumbered by defense expenditures and any responsibility in American wars, could focus on the monumental task of its dramatic post-World War II recovery. Most important, the U.S. nuclear umbrella has guaranteed that any nation that might attack Japan with nuclear weapons would face retaliation from the United States. In reality, the United States’ willingness to launch a massive nuclear exchange if China or Russia hit a Japanese city was always uncertain. But since it was uncertain to potential aggressors too, it served its purpose, which was more psychological than military.
The Hanoi talks subtly shift that guarantee. The new U.S. position is that it cannot accept a North Korean nuclear program that threatens the United States. Implicit in that position is that it can tolerate one that threatens Japan. The U.S. nuclear umbrella is notionally still there, but the United States’ reluctance to engage raises the question of whether North Korea will be deterred. So, the U.S. nuclear deterrent still guards Japan – but can the guardian be trusted?
Japan lives in a rough neighborhood. The Russians hold islands to which the Japanese lay claim, and while it’s not a real threat now, the Russian future is always unknown. China is challenging Japan’s control of islands in the East China Sea and is threatening to potentially take control of the Western Pacific, which is currently in the hands of the United States. China has a long memory of Japanese occupation and atrocities committed during the Sino-Japanese War. The Korean Peninsula, too, has a long memory of Japanese occupation, exploitation and abuse. So apart from the current geopolitical reality, Japan lives in a region that resents it for historical reasons.
In this context, the Japanese continue to struggle internally over defense policy. Japan’s current policy is to build a substantial force while minimizing its capabilities, saying it is only for national defense purposes. The alternative is for the world’s third-largest economy to normalize its international status by abandoning the constitutional prohibition on military force (already ignored for the most part) and create an armed force congruent with its economic might and strategic interests.
The Japanese public is on the whole comfortable with its postwar strategy. But with the rise of China, North Korean nuclear weapons and a potentially aggressive Russia, it cannot remain so for long. As the U.S. puts pressure on its allies to carry their own burdens, the Japanese strategy is becoming increasingly untenable. It cannot undergo a serious shift until the public does, and that means there will be an internal political crisis over the matter. But public opinion is already shifting, and the Japanese will face their reality.
Behind all this is an inevitable shift in U.S. foreign policy, visible in its stance on North Korea and elsewhere and rooted in the failure of U.S. warfare since World War II. The Korean War was a costly tie. Vietnam ended with Hanoi’s flag flying over Saigon. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan failed to establish viable, pro-U.S. regimes. The only 20th century wars in which the U.S. fared well were those in which U.S. allies bore a massive part of the burden. These wars only ended well when there was no U.S. occupation or when the ruthless execution of the war shattered the morale of the enemy and permitted the U.S. to reshape the societies. And very few wars will be like that.
That U.S. strategy had to shift was obvious to me a decade ago when I wrote “The Next Decade.” The shift has arrived, and that means nations, enemies and allies are repositioning themselves. In Asia, the Chinese and Russians will mostly hold their positions. North Korea will exploit the shift to the extent it can. But it is Japan that will have to undergo the most radical change.
Reprinted with permission from Geopolitical Futures.