[Writer's Choice] Asian US Allies Increasing Tensions, Big Win for China

Jay Yim, Aug. 23, 2019, 2:17 p.m.


South Korea and Japan are once again at odds, which delivers a serious blow to US security interests while potentially handing a big win to China.

On Thursday, South Korea made the decision to end an intelliegence-sharing agreement with Japan, saying the pact is not in its "national interests." This marks the latest move in an escalating conflict between the two nations.

For the two countries, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSO MIA) was an important step forward in the long struggle to work together and their troubled history. The agreement helped align the two nations defensively against regional threats.

The possible eradication of the agreement, which comes amid an increasing trade conflict between South Korea and Japan, has significant implications for the US alliances, especially as the US is confronting China's rising regional power, and experts are worried.

Kristine Lee, a research associate for the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said Friday, "There are significant repercussions to the disintegration of GSOMIA."

"When Japan and South Korea, two of the region's most vibrant democracies, are sparring, China is looking at all of this with bemusement."

"They are able to exploit rifts between the United States' greatest alliances in the region and use it to their advantage," Lee said. It weakens the United States' toolkit for fighting back against China's illiberal aims and ambitions."

A former senior member of President Trump's National Security Council Rob Spalding, said that "China is the biggest winner here," arguing that this development gives China "a potent weapon to chip away" at the alliance structure.

South Korea and Japan are crucial to basing US power in the region. Currently, the US has 23,000 troops stationed in the South, which also includes tanks, artillery and F-16 fighters. In addition, two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems are stationed in the country. As for Japan, 50,000 US troops are stationed and is a base for about 20 US warships, which also included the United States' only forward-deployed aircraft carrier.

South Korea's decision to end the pact with Japan brought "strong concern and disappointment" to the Department of Defense.

"We strongly believe that the integrity of our mutual defense and security ties must persist despite frictions in other areas of the [Republic of Korea]-Japan relationship. We'll continue to pursue bilateral and trilateral defense and security cooperation where possible with Japan and the ROK," the Pentagon said.

Lee explained that the status or health of the East Asian alliance tends to go through cyclical periods of conflict, saying that "we always tend to come back from them."

The damage to the South Korea-Japan alliance comes as the Department of Defense tries to focus intently on China. Mark Esper in his first television interview since becoming the new secretary of defense, said that China is the Pentagon's "number one priority."

"Looking across the Asia-Pacific region, all of the regional democracies, with South Korea and Japan at the forefront, they all view China as a significant, long-term threat to their security in the 21st century," Lee said. "That should be a unifying factor. If the United States is able to leverage that common view of long-term perceptions, it will be able to rebuild the alliance structure."

"Alliances are the United States' greatest force multiplier, so if it is able to harness that and ease over tensions with Japan and South Korea, it could position itself for long-term enduring strength in the region," Lee said. This begins with assurances and increased support for trilateral engagements, but that will require this administration and future administrations invest appropriately in that future.

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