IDSA COMMENT

The Gates Mission: Re-contextualising US alliances in East Asia

January 18, 2011

China’s emergence as a crucial player in global politics and in Asian regional security, effectuating advances deemed as errant to the norms of the international system created by the US, has generated discord between the two. US attempts to enlist China’s cooperation on regional hotspots, in a manner believed by Beijing to be designed to suppress its rise while safeguarding the American global hegemony, has created a challenger in China.

More muscle and bone is being cultivated by the US to add to its skeletal framework of the ‘hub and spokes’ security structure in Northeast Asia, epitomized by its bilateral alliances with Japan and South Korea. These alliances have now been re-contextualised to cater for China’s military rise and to meet the threats posed by North Korea. The brazenness of both China and its ally, North Korea, was palpably felt by the US and countries in East Asia, in recent tensions arising from the diplomatic standoff on US sale of weapons to Taiwan; on the issue of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea which is now being wholly claimed by China; China’s support for North Korea on the issue of the latter’s alleged torpedoing of the Cheonan; on North Korean and Chinese objections to the joint US-South Korea live military drills in the Yellow Sea; China’s territorial squabble with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, and the inter-Korean exchange of fire on the Yeonpyeong island near the disputed Northern Limit Line. These incidents have also contributed further to mutual mistrust.

There have been visible efforts to re-start dialogue within the reticent dyads and the dyads that have gone sour. The US and China re-launched their high-level military contacts on January 10, 2011; the hotline between North and South Korea, located at Panmunjom, was restored on January 12; and, Japan and South Korea agreed to "expand and deepen" military ties including possible intelligence and equipment sharing. Yet, statecraft in the region is unmistakably converging on honing military capabilities not only against the asymmetrical military advantages accumulated by North Korea but also to counter the Chinese military build-up in the Pacific.

During his trip to China, undertaken to restart the suspended Sino-US military ties, Defence Secretary Robert Gates not only cautioned against China’s rapid advances in high tech-military equipment, but also highlighted the spectre of future threats from North Korea. On January 12, in a significant new assessment, he announced that within five years Pyongyang may develop a missile with the potential of hitting Alaska or the US West Coast. He also anticipated the possibility that within the same timeframe North Korea might be able to overcome technological hurdles to manufacture a warhead small enough to be delivered by an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Earlier, on December 14, 2010, The New York Times reported Gary Samore, chief nuclear adviser to President Obama, as saying that “the North Korean programme appears to be much more advanced and efficient than the Iranian programme, which is running into problems.” North Korea’s new plant to enrich nuclear fuel is so advanced that other countries working on this technology may take more than two decades to match its advances.

On the eve of his trip to Beijing, Gates announced his commitment to increase investments to update US military assets in the Pacific, at a time when the Pentagon has proposed to cut $78 billion from its budget. He voiced his concern about China, saying that “They clearly have potential to put some of our capabilities at risk, and we have to pay attention to them, we have to respond appropriately with our own programs.” The test flight of the J-20 stealth fighter by the Chinese military during Gates’ visit was but a testimony to his forewarning.

From Beijing Gates travelled to Tokyo, where he orchestrated the common objective of countering China’s military build up as well as reining in North Korea’s provocative actions and combating its nuclear ambitions which threaten the Pacific Rim and international security. Gates has also, most conspicuously, rewired the US alliance with Japan, welding the rift that had surfaced on the issue of the relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa. Gates smoothened the frayed ends when, on January 13, he conveyed to Japan’s Defence Minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, that the US was willing to be flexible in following Tokyo’s lead in working to relocate the base on Okinawa, thus demonstrating sensitivity towards the domestic political resistance to the relocation plan, lest the concerns of the Okinawan people overshadow the need to expand the overall security alliance with Japan. Gates is also pushing a deal for Japan to buy a fleet of fifth generation F-35 jet fighters.

Gates and Kitazawa also agreed to speed up talks on the possibility of providing the jointly developed sea-based ballistic missile interception system, the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), to other countries. At present, a bilateral pact prohibits the export of SM-3 without Japan’s prior consent. At a joint news conference, Kitazawa responded to Gates’ suggestion about the economic benefit of exporting the SM-3, by saying that Japan "would aim to have an answer by the end of the year." Thus, the US and Japan have adopted conciliatory tones to brush away the corrosive effects on their relations caused by differences on the air-base transfer issue and the export of SM-3, in order to remain focused on their shared strategic concerns.

During his three-hour stop in Seoul on January 14, Gates held wide-ranging talks with President Lee Myung-Bak and Defence Minister Kim Kwan Jin on military cooperation to prevent another North Korean attack, and once again, he also affirmed the solidarity of their alliance. The next day, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan, after a meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Seiji Maehara in Seoul, reaffirmed “close coordination” among the three allies against North Korea. A ‘triangle’ which was not in the making is finally emerging. This can be gauged by the fact that Japan has agreed not to precondition the Six-Party Talks (SPT) by seeking a resolution of the abductee problem, since the main focus of the forum is North Korea’s nuclear weapons. This was conveyed by Japanese Deputy Press Secretary Hidenobu Sobashima at a press conference held on January 13.

During his trip to Asia, Gates has steered Japan and South Korea towards aligning their shared threat perceptions about North Korea and China in a manner never seen before. The earlier ‘bandwagoning’ with China seen in East Asia now appears to have been replaced by ‘balancing’ against China. The unexpected appearance of Japan and South Korea, as possible partners, will impart a new turn to this ‘balancing’ behaviour.