President Obama is in Japan Thursday at the start of a four-country visit in East Asia reassuring U.S. allies of its commitment to security and stability in the region as part of the so-called “Asia pivot” or “re-balance.” The trip was delayed last year because of U.S. political fighting over budget issues. North Korea's nuclear and missile threats are expected to dominate talks in Japan and South Korea as there are indications Pyongyang is preparing its fourth nuclear test. China's increasingly assertive moves on disputed territory are also expected to be discussed as some worry Beijing may follow Russia's lead in Crimea by using force to take back historic claims. VOA spoke with the Deputy Director for Northeast Asia at the International Crisis Group, Daniel Pinkston, on these issues via Skype.
Q: Obama is in Japan then coming to Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. After a delayed pivot, what issues do you see being at the top of the agenda?
A: There are a number of bilateral issues in each of those countries. But, more than that I think regional security has been a problem, tensions have been rising in East Asia. There are a number of maritime disputes and historical issues that are causing tensions in the region. So, I think President Obama will focus on security. Regional security will be at the top of the agenda. He'll be looking to reassure allies and to send signals to adversaries or potential adversaries about American resolve in fulfilling its alliance commitments. And then also some economic issues, including the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, that will also be on the agenda.
Q: There are signs of a potential fourth nuclear test by North Korea. South Korea says it would be a “game changer” if carried out. How would the game change?
A: South Korea's Foreign Minister Yoon said that. I don't know exactly what he means by that statement. I don't know if he means a fourth test would somehow increase the credibility or reliability of North Korea's nuclear capabilities and therefore the threat would increase to a point that this would change the game. Or, if the response from the international community, which is expected to include increased sanctions and more pressure against North Korea - if that would be the game changer. Depending on your perspective, I can't speak for Minister Yoon. However, it's certainly not welcome and will not contribute to the security situation in Northeast Asia.
Q: How important is it for the U.S. pivot, and dealing with the challenges of North Korea and China, to see the rift between Seoul and Tokyo repaired?
A: Well, that is problematic from the U.S. perspective. Many policy makers in DC are very frustrated by this. They would like to see greater security cooperation amongst allies and friends in the region. But, because of historical issues, Korea was under Japanese colonial control in the early 20th century, there's a lot of historical animosity. South Korea and others in the region view Japanese behavior as attempting to bury that history or to whitewash some of the atrocities and the aggression from the war in the Pacific. And that has caused tensions between Seoul and Tokyo. The US would like to see this resolved so that the two countries could cooperate on very pressing issues such as North Korea's nuclear threat.
Q: How should the Obama administration change its policy on North Korea to better deal with Pyongyang's threats and nuclear programs?
A: That's a very difficult question. Many people are frustrated and criticize the administration for not doing something more proactive. However, it takes cooperation on Pyongyang's part. And, regardless of what kind of administration has been in Washington, or in Seoul, over the past 25 years, we've had a number of different combinations of Republican and Democratic presidents, and liberal and conservative governments in Seoul, and both countries have tried engagement, very progressive engagement, as well as hawkish policies. And neither of those seem to work. So, until North Korea changes its perspective, changes its thinking on international security, I don't see them being cooperative. The only thing that's really been consistent is that North Korea continues to work on its programs. They're very motivated to have a nuclear capability and the delivery systems. They've been working on this for decades now. So, I think the default position or default policy is deterrence and containment. It's suboptimal. But, the good news is I think North Korea can be contained and deterred. They wish to survive. They don't want to commit suicide. And, if they were to use these capabilities, of course, it would be over for North Korea.
Q: U.S. officials are concerned China may use the weak international reaction to Russia's Crimea grab as inspiration to move on disputed territory in the East or South China Seas. How do you think Crimea affected Beijing's strategy on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute?
A: Well, many people in East Asia are nervous about U.S. resolve and U.S. commitments. The cases you mentioned are offered lessons learned for friends, allies, and adversaries. Some people are worried this will give countries like China, and others, will embolden them to take aggressive action. That maybe they will feel that disputes can be resolved with force. And, there are a number of troubling trends from the perspective of East Asian allies and partners. The failure, or the inability, to respond with force following the chemical weapons use in Syria. The situation in Ukraine. Last year, President Obama's inability to come to the summits and the meetings in Bali. So, these signals to East Asia raises many questions about U.S. resolve. But, I think President Obama is going to address those issues. And, already, while in Japan, I think he's been very clear about U.S. alliance commitments and U.S. commitment to support its partners in the region.
Q: The U.S. is set to transfer wartime command of South Korean troops back to South Korea next year and is supporting Japan's move toward "collective" defense. At the same time it is negotiating the possibility of resuming rotation of U.S. troops in the Philippines. Why do we see the U.S. military strategy changing in Asia?
A: Well, because of the tensions and potential conflicts. So, the U.S. does have alliance treaties with Japan and Republic of Korea, has, I guess, de facto alliances with Philippines, has basing agreements with Singapore and, also alliance treaty, or commitment with Australia. So, the U.S. is deploying and has maintained troops and assets in East Asia for decades. There hasn't been a big shift in assets here, of military assets. But, they are bolstering that commitment on the margins and sending political signals. Also, part of this pivot includes more attention at the higher levels in Washington. So, it's diplomatic, it's also economic. The TPP is very important. Integrating these countries into a system of economic cooperation and mutual benefit is a big part of this Asian pivot. Most people focus on the military part but that's just one dimension of this strategy.
Q: Anything else you'd like to add on these issues and President Obama's visit?
A: In Seoul the big concern of course is how to deal with North Korea, how to manage the North Korean problem. There will be discussions about that. A couple of issues that, I guess at lower levels or working levels, that affect the alliance relationship is the OPCON transfer, what you mentioned, the transfer of operational control of South Korean troops during war time. That's scheduled for December 2015. The official position in Seoul now is that they would like to delay it for a couple of years. It's already been delayed twice. The U.S. wants to go forward with it. But, we'll see if that happens. That transition, whether it occurs or not, must be managed. And also, another bilateral issue that affects the alliance is the, what's called the “123 Agreement”, it's a bilateral nuclear cooperation deal. The U.S. and South Korea had signed a 40-year agreement back in 1974. It expired this year. They'd been negotiating renewal or a new agreement but were unable to reach a consensus and it was extended for two years. They're trying to negotiate that arrangement South Korea wants extended fuel cycle capabilities, particularly on the recycling of nuclear fuel. South Korea has a lot of nuclear power reactors and they're much more advanced in their nuclear technology today than they were 40 years ago. So, this is causing some tensions between the two countries. The U.S. would like to restrict those capabilities because of the proliferation concerns. But, hopefully they'll be able to work out an agreement. If not, this causes some tensions or frictions in the alliance. And, it's something that has to be managed as well.