Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Asia last week to find a region in turmoil. China is flexing its military muscle throughout the region. North Korea is continuing to improve its nuclear capabilities. And political and economic relations between Japan and South Korea are deteriorating rapidly.
Never has there been a greater need for an active American diplomatic role in Asia than now. But while U.S. officials regularly travel to the region, their main message is that America needs to take care of its own interests first. Washington will no longer provide the leadership on which Asia’s stability and security have so long depended. More and more countries are now following in America’s footsteps, pursuing policies to satisfy their own immediate interests no matter their impact on the region as a whole.
This new reality is clearest when it comes to the growing clashes between Japan and South Korea. The two countries have long feuded over history, including over possible Japanese reparations for the treatment of Koreans during Imperial Japan’s occupation of the peninsula. Repeated efforts to settle differences have faltered on domestic politics in both countries, where the issues remain readily exploitable.
The latest escalation has come from Japan instituting new export controls on critical materials to make memory chips for cellphones and moving to remove South Korea from a “white list” simplifying trade between the countries. The dispute may even spill over into the security relationship, with Seoul threatening to end an important intelligence-sharing agreement between the two countries.
The impact of the deteriorating relationship on regional security became evident in July when a joint Russian and Chinese long-range air patrol, including nuclear bombers, flew south between Japan and the Korean Peninsula. When the planes flew near a group of islands claimed by both South Korea and Japan, they both scrambled fighters to intercept the Russian and Chinese planes. After a Russian reconnaissance aircraft strayed into the airspace over the islands, South Korean fighters fired hundreds of warning shots to force the Russian plane to change course.
Yet, far from uniting the two nations in a joint response against Russia and China, the incident deepened divisions between the countries. Tokyo launched a formal complaint not only against Russia’s violation of its claimed airspace, but also against Seoul’s actions, denouncing them as an infringement of its sovereignty.
Moscow and Beijing weren’t the only countries trying to exploit the dispute between the two American allies. North Korea launched a number of ballistic missiles, once again defying a United Nations Security Council resolution prohibiting such testing. The missiles likely were a new variety, solid-fueled and able to be launched from easily hidden mobile vehicles, representing a qualitative new threat. Pyongyang said as much, saying the tests were a “solemn warning” directed at “South Korean military warmongers.”
Meanwhile, China is continuing to expand its military reach throughout the region. Its deployment of two bombers as part of the joint patrol with Russia was the first of its kind, demonstrating an increased military alignment between the two great powers. Farther south, Beijing is continuing to stake claims to territories in the South China Sea, intimidating countries like Vietnam and the Philippines by ramming their fishing boats and militarizing new island outposts. And Beijing is sending clear notice to Hong Kong that there are limits to how far protesters there can push before it may be forced to send in the army.
All of these developments are challenging the stability and security of the world’s most dynamic and economically important region. Washington has an overriding national interest in making sure that none of them get out of hand. But so far, the Trump administration has fallen short.
Thus, National Security Adviser John Bolton traveled to Seoul and Tokyo recently, telling them they needed to settle their dispute because it had a negative impact on U.S. security interests. But he offered no American mediation. Pompeo, meanwhile, responded to North Korea’s rocket tests (which Trump dismissed because they were “short-range missiles”) by urging a resumption of nuclear talks. As for China, the focus this week was on resuming trade talks and getting a deal, not on reassuring allies and friends that the United States has their back in the face of China’s growing military might.
America’s abdication of its leadership role in Asia is creating uncertainty among many of its closest friends about how to secure their interests. Some are aligning more closely with China. Others are turning inward and pulling back from regional responsibilities. None can take America’s place. The growing regional turmoil is likely only a foretaste of what is yet to come.
Ivo Daalder is the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.