US no longer out front: Celebrants costumed at this year's Halloween Parade in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo. Photo: AFP

In a sea of growing unrest and weirdness, as the sinking of the United States to a depth seldom if ever seen stokes uncertainty if not panic about the future, Japan remains a remarkable island of political stability.

This past week Shinzo Abe became the longest serving Prime Minister in Japanese history. While there are increasing signs of a slowing of the Japanese economy, Abe faces little serious challenge either from within the ruling conservative party or from the opposition parties. He has carefully steered Japanese foreign policy, avoiding a full-scale trade war with the US while warming relations with China.

Given that situation, it is not hard to understand the lack of interest here in the political turmoil in the US. The impeachment hearings generate little interest and are viewed mostly as yet another moment in a seemingly endless chain of crises.

To the extent Japanese are looking beyond their borders, it is mainly in the neighborhood. Most of all, the protests in Hong Kong capture their attention.

Still the storm surges of US political turmoil manage to reach Japan’s shores. In conversations over the past month with senior Japanese officials, policy makers, and journalists, as well as US officials and Asian diplomats based here, there is a growing unease over the retreat of American leadership, compounded by the impact of the impeachment inquiry.

The sense that the Trump administration is now completely preoccupied with its political survival – from the impact of impeachment to the election – is intensifying.

The dispatch of the new national security advisor as the senior American official at the annual ASEAN and East Asian summits in Bangkok raised eyebrows. The ASEAN leaders refused to meet him en masse, sending only three of their numbers to meet a clearly lower-level figure. When the Americans had a fit in response to the supposed slight, ASEAN leaders were stunned, a senior Asian diplomat in Tokyo told me.

Similarly, Tokyo was not particularly pleased that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent his deputy, John Sullivan, to the two-day G20 foreign ministers meeting in Nagoya this weekend. But the main indicator of American retreat begins next door in South Korea, and extends to the troubled Japan-South Korea relationship.

GSOMIA close call

 The most visible sign of the diminished power of the US had been the resistance to the very public efforts by senior American officials to persuade South Korea to back off from plans to allow a US -brokered defense intelligence sharing agreement with Japan to expire this weekend. A last-minute reversal by Seoul on Friday is so conditional it could prove to offer only a temporary reprieve.

As recently as last week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, made the argument that the GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) was essential to US national security interests, not just those of Japan and South Korea. His message was echoed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley.

As had been the case since the initial announcement by Seoul that it was pulling out of the pact, President Moon had given barely a nod to the American request, reiterating his position that South Korea would act to preserve the intelligence sharing agreement only if Japan offered to lift export controls imposed as part of Japan’s ongoing battles with Korea on wartime history issues. The Japanese government sees the issues as unrelated and had refused such a request.

The last-minute decision by South Korea to extend the intelligence pact while resuming talks with Japan on the export control is clearly a belated bow to American pressure.

“I think Seoul realized that its announced intention to withdraw from GSOMIA was already damaging the US-ROK alliance, including by rattling US confidence in the ROK as an ally and security partner, and by raising major concerns and questions about Seoul’s true intentions,” former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Evans Revere told The Nelson Report.

The denial of such a security request from the US , a treaty ally with 28,500 troops based in Korea and committed to the defense of South Korea, would have been unprecedented, US senior officials told me. Disagreements between the US and its Korean ally are not new – but on national security issues, given the American presence and role, the Koreans have never previously brushed aside US concerns. That has been true on issues ranging from South Korea’s clandestine nuclear weapons program in the 1970s to American insistence that it hold off on plans to retaliate against North Korean provocations.

American officials have also conveyed their desire for Japan to show more flexibility, although on a more low-key basis, senior Japanese and US officials said. But Tokyo has told Americans that they regard this as a Korean problem and have been content to simply urge Seoul to reconsider the decision. In conservative circles in Japan, not least in the parliament, the disdain for Korea is overwhelming. And that reflects public opinion, fed by some segments of the Japanese media.

While the Koreans avoided an irrevocable step, the reality is that Friday’s decision “is conditional and potentially temporary,” commented Heritage Foundation analyst Bruce Klinger, a former CIA analyst. Given the fragility of this situation, it is not hard to imagine a slide back into active confrontation.

The Korean resistance to American pressure on this issue reflects the views of more hardline, nationalist elements grouped around Moon in the Blue House. According to senior Japanese national security officials, the South Korean foreign and sefense ministries both had favored extension of GSOMIA, but were overruled after a close vote (4-3 by one account) among the senior advisors to Moon. Among the hardline grouping, it is more important to stand up to Japan, a position reflecting public opinion in South Korea, where boycotts of Japanese goods and a dramatic drop in tourism to Japan are now taking hold.

But there is another explanation for how this crisis reached this point. For both Seoul and Tokyo, there has been little need to listen to administration officials, even at the level of a cabinet secretary or chairman of the Joint Chiefs. All decisions are now entirely made by Trump, without input from his advisors. Senior US officials here admit that the president has never mentioned GSOMIA in public or conveyed those concerns in private, to their knowledge. Except for one interaction with the media when Trump talked about the Japan-Korea dispute, there is no evidence he is even aware of the problem.

The Japanese willingness to look for a way out of the impasse in relations with Korea may have little to do with what American officials are saying to Tokyo. There is a growing sense among Japanese officials and among policy intellectuals, though usually heard behind closed doors, that they have badly miscalculated in imposing export controls on Korea. The decision was opposed by the foreign and defense ministries and originated in the economics ministry, and from close aides to Abe who were looking for a tool to pressure the Koreans.

Sober Japanese policy makers realize that while the Moon administration has provoked much of the current crisis, to stand by and allow the deterioration in relations is a strategic error for Japan. In those circles there is growing concern that South Korea will fall, along with North Korea, into the Chinese orbit. One very important academic policy maker, with regular access to the Prime Minister’s office, put it to me this way:

“South Korea and Taiwan are the buffer for Japan. Of course, people here are angry about Moon’s handling of the history issues, but in the longer term South Korea is so important to Japan. If we lose the buffer, it is a disaster for Japan. We have understood this going back to the 7th century.”

Sharing debacle

 The one issue that President Trump has paid personal attention to in the region, other than North Korea, is defense cost sharing with South Korea and Japan. He has repeatedly said that both countries are “wealthy nations” that should contribute far more to the cost of hosting US forces on their territories. According to a variety of reports, the US is now seeking massive increases in spending levels by both countries – 500 percent in the case of Korea and 400 percent in the case of Japan.

This only fuels the perception of American retreat. The demands are so out of whack with reality, prompting nationalist ire in Korea already, that they have promoted speculation that they are a pretext to begin the process of withdrawal of US forces from the region.

The negotiations this past week in Seoul on the Special Measures Agreement to cover defense costs were close to bizarre. The chief US negotiator, the State Department Political Military Bureau’s James DeHart, walked out of talks on Tuesday when the Koreans were, in his words, “not responsive to our request for fair and equitable burden-sharing.” DeHart had proposed, by several accounts, that the Korean contribution go up from around $900 billion to $5 billion – an amount that dwarfs the estimated total cost of maintaining US forces in Korea, which is about $2 billion or even less.

Korean media reports claimed that the US was asking Korea to pay for deployments of “strategic” assets, including US forces based beyond the peninsula, a report denied by Trump administration officials.

Some background is important here. The SMA talks last year almost broke down when the US brought in a demand for a doubling of the Korean contribution – to about $2 billion. According to sources in the US Forces Japan, where such talks were closely followed, the demand for a doubling of spending came directly from President Trump, without any particular reason for that target. In the end, they settled for an increase of 8 percent, but the Koreans also had to agree to annual rather than multi-year agreements, leading to the renewed talks this year.

The US and Japan still have a 5-year Host Nation Support agreement, which expires in the spring of 2021. Under normal procedures, the negotiations for this should begin in late spring and early summer of next year, in order for agreement to be reached by fall, to allow for the preparation of the Japanese budget. According to a report published in Foreign Policy, National Security Advisor John Bolton and his deputy Matthew Pottinger told the Japanese last summer that the US was seeking a quadrupling of contributions to $8 billion. Senior Japanese defense officials say there has been no such request made and senior US officials would only confirm that the US request would be substantial.

 Japanese officials are also mystified by the number. What is the basis of that request? According to one veteran Japanese journalist, citing sources within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the US is asking Japan to pay the cost of all systems in the region used for missile defense, including global satellite systems. Both senior US and Japanese defense officials were unable to confirm any such request. US officials privately suggest that the number is simply pulled out of the hat by the President – and they are left trying to justify it.

The Japanese are watching the Korea talks very closely to get a sense of how serious are these demands from Trump. The current Japanese game plan, as was the case with the trade deal reached earlier this fall, is to draw out the process as long as possible, even until after the presidential vote.

Election: Tokyo view

Japanese policy makers are by no means ignoring the political situation in the United States. While the impeachment process is not taken very seriously, Japanese are watching the American election process very closely.

In Japanese conservative circles, there is open support for a second Trump term. Asked why he favored that outcome, the senior aide to a leading conservative member of parliament told me, simply,“Trump is anti-China.” That rather simplistic view is widespread and reflects the deep fear among Japanese policy makers of American abandonment.

In a twist on this view, a senior Japanese official told Americans in a recent closed-door dialogue that he was not concerned about the outcome of the US election since either candidate would hold such negative views of China.

On the other hand, multiple senior Japanese officials, including one engaged in the trade negotiations with the US , told me privately that they are almost desperately hoping Trump is defeated. For them, his America First policies are the engine of US retreat from leadership. But they also are preparing for the possibility that he will be reelected.

One window in these preparations can be found in the rumors making the rounds of the ruling conservative party about the possible succession to Abe, whose current term as party leader, and therefore prime minister, ends in 2021. According to Japanese political reporters, there is now a serious argument being made that if Trump is re-elected, Abe will stay on for yet another term as prime minister, on the grounds that only he will be able to manage the relationship with the mercurial, and increasingly unchained, American leader.

Alternately, a victory for the Democrats would trigger Abe’s departure, based on the sense that he is too tied to Trump to establish a good relationship with a new American president.

In those odd ways, the realities of political turmoil in the US are making themselves felt inside this oasis of calm.

Daniel Sneider is a Lecturer in International Policy and East Asian Studies at Stanford University. This article is based on a commentary that appeared in The Nelson Report, a leading US newsletter on Asia.

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