What’s positive in Trump-Kim summit
KYOTO, Japan — The meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is an initial step toward peace and stability in our region. In the agreement they signed, Trump “committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK,” while Kim reaffirmed his “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The skeptics’ narrative that the agreement reached by the two enigmatic leaders yielded only platitudes fails to look into the motivations of the two parties and the long-term impact of the summit. Not too many realize that, for Kim, improved relations with the United States is an extremely beneficial development for his country. Such a situation increases his leverage not only in dealing with Washington, but with Beijing as well. His late father, Kim Jong-il, and late grandfather, Kim Il-sung, had been adroit in managing their relations with Chinese leaders.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is likely uncomfortable with Trump’s pledge to indefinitely stop large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea. It puts Moon’s leadership at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the rightist opposition, which has been benefiting from the acrimonious relationship between Washington and Pyongyang. Now, the détente after the agreement could reduce the value of South Korea as a key US ally.
What about the implications for Japan-US relations? The downsizing of US military presence in Northeast Asia would be worrisome for Japanese leaders. Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan provides that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” It further bans “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.”
These provisions prevent Japan from containing North Korea, much less waging an all-out war. In the absence of a conscription system, the young men of Japan have not had any military training. The Japan Self-Defense Forces has been a volunteer force since the end of the Allied occupation, and its total strength is less than 300,000.
The World Population Review estimates that by 2050, 40 percent of Japan’s population will be over 65. Compared to 50 years ago when there were 12 Japanese workers for every retiree, there will be an equal 1:1 ratio in 50 years.
Because of the trauma of the last world war, a big percentage of Japanese voters are allergic to militarization and nuclearization. Faced with these domestic problems, Japan no longer harbors any ambition of becoming a military superpower. It is better off as a leading major power maximizing the use of its economic standing and soft power in its relations with China and its Asean neighbors.
In the face of all these developments, what are the prospects for China? We know that the future of China is, in large measure, pegged to its goal of matching the military and economic power of the United States. In his report to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on Oct. 18, 2017, President Xi Jinping declared that “we shall make it our mission to see… that by the mid-21st century, our people’s armed forces have been fully transformed into world-class forces.”
This resolve of China to assume military superpower status contrasts with the seeming abdication by the United States of its role as the global policeman. US world leadership is further eroded by the recriminations hurled by Trump at longtime allies during the last G-7 Summit in Canada, and his successive withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and the United Nations Human Rights Council.
For its part, Japan is open to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with certain conditions. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recognized its “potential to connect East and West as well as the diverse regions found in between.” However, he finds it critical for BRI “to be open to use by all, and to be developed through procurement that is transparent and fair.” As for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Japan would consider joining it, once issues such as the environmental impact of its projects are resolved.
The Trump-Kim summit opens floodgates that could fundamentally transform the security architecture of East Asia. The positive outcome is that it could signal the beginning of a more inclusive world order that incorporates Asian interests and norms of international governance.
Compliance with the Singapore agreement could start the process of reunifying the two Koreas. China and the United States, as guarantors, will have to adopt effective confidence-building measures and preventive diplomacy that will maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Asean and Japan, meanwhile, could play a proactive role as honest brokers promoting goodwill and understanding between the United States and China.
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Dr. Wilfrido V. Villacorta was Philippine ambassador and permanent representative to Asean. He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto University, Japan. He has been interviewing leading specialists in Japanese universities and think tanks, as well as former ambassadors and foreign policymakers.
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