For our Fletcher School Capstone project, we are exploring the potential for additional security cooperation between the United States, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. These four countries face myriad challenges which will be difficult to successfully confront alone, but individually and collectively they face constraints on their ability to cooperate.
As we reported in our previous post, we travelled to Sydney and Canberra, Australia; Seoul, South Korea; and Tokyo, Japan to better understand the dynamics at play. In these four cities, we spoke with more than 60 people from a wide variety of both public- and private-sector institutions. While we are still analyzing our notes and reviewing our findings, some themes have emerged. We have chosen to highlight particularly interesting or relevant ones from each country, but these themes apply to varying degrees across each country in our study.
In Australia, apprehension. Over the past several decades, Australian defense policy can be summarized as “build a good relationship with the United States and call them for help if you need it.” With the election of President Trump and North Korea’s improving ballistic missile capabilities, there is a growing awareness within policy circles that Australia may have to start asking difficult questions of itself. Can the United States be relied on? How can Australia increase defense spending without upsetting the budget? How can Australia best reshape its [small] military to best address the most likely threats it will face? While these conversations have not yet reached the broader public, the fact that they are happening at all is a notable shift. Australia will require effective political leadership to address these concerns, which may prove challenging for a country that is led by its fourth different Prime Minister in five years.
In South Korea, uncertainty. The United States is not the only country with political turmoil. With the impeachment, removal from office, and arrest of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the country is set to elect a new President on May 9. Moon Jae-in, President Park's most likely elected successor, hails from the opposition Democratic Party. Broadly speaking, Korean conservative parties have tended to take a tougher line on China and North Korea, preferring a stronger relationship with Washington, while more liberal parties take the opposite stance. Mr. Moon has criticized the current policy towards North Korea and the UN Security Council’s sanctions regime, and has signaled that the deployment of an advanced, U.S. missile defense system, known as THAAD, should be subject to a parliamentary vote. Given these possible shifts in South Korea, and the Trump administration’s unclear policy for the region, the relationship seems destined to remain in a holding pattern until May 10 at the earliest.
In Japan, cautious optimism. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to forge a strong relationship with President Trump. Prime Minister Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with then President-elect Trump in New York and the second world leader to meet with him after his inauguration; the two subsequently went golfing in Florida. In a notable shift from his campaign, President Trump has softened his economic rhetoric and reiterated the U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan. Moreover, the visits of Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson were well received in Tokyo. In sum, many of the Japanese experts we spoke with expressed cautious optimism that once fully briefed on all aspects of the relationship, President Trump would double down on the alliance.
This is an uncertain and exciting time to be studying the region. Our visits helped shed light on the internal deliberations and debates taking place in Canberra, Seoul, and Tokyo. Our research trip has given us a better sense of the dynamics at work, the key actors to watch, and potential inflection points in the future.
This post is part of a two post series, part one can be found here.