Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced he will be stepping down in the near future due to a worsening intestinal condition. Abe, who has held his position since 2012 will stay in office until a successor is chosen. That task will probably be completed in the coming weeks. The Liberal Democratic Party, of which Abe is a member, controls a majority in the Diet and has the power to make the choice.
Abe leaves as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. His resignation will bring about significant ramifications for Japan, East Asia, US foreign policies, and defense strategies in the region. Abe left his stamp on Japan. A conservative nationalist, he came to power promising to kickstart Japan’s near-flatlining economy at the time, and counter China through assertive foreign policy, and strengthened Japanese military. “I’ve realized that Japan is expected to exert leadership not just on the economic front, but also in the field of security in the Asia-Pacific,” he said during an interview in 2013, not long after taking power. “There are concerns that China is attempting to change the status quo by force, rather than by rule of law. It shouldn’t take that path, and many nations expect Japan to strongly express that view.”
Abe sought, and cultivated closer ties with the United States during his time as prime minister. He was the first foreign leader to visit President Trump after the 2016 election. Although the two leaders differed on trade issues, and Japan shouldering some of the cost of stationing 50,000 US troops in its country, countering China’s rising power was an area where the two leaders found common ground.
As the news of the prime minister’s resignation spreads around Asia it will be interesting to see how China responds. With Abe now a lame duck for the next few weeks, will Beijing decide the time is right to challenge Japan over the Senkaku Islands perhaps?
Today US Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alexander Azar arrived in Taipei. The purpose of his trip is to strengthen economic and public-health cooperation between the US and Taiwan. Despite the benign nature of the mission, Beijing is not happy with Azar’s appearance. He is the most senior US official to visit Taiwan since the US broke off diplomatic relations in 1979, a price paid to help normalize diplomatic ties between the US and People’s Republic of China at the time. Sending Azar to Taipei appears to be a provocation aimed directly at Beijing by the Trump administration. Treating Taiwan as a peer nation goes against the PRC’s official position that Taiwan is a wayward province and not a sovereign nation. The Trump administration has made a priority of supporting Taiwan since 2017 strengthening relations, and increasing arms sales to the island nation.
This move irritates Sino-US relations and comes at a time when tension between Washington and Beijing is racing towards the boiling point. Human rights, trade, COVID-19, and the South China Sea are the main areas where the US and China are at loggerheads. Azar’s visit will undoubtedly raise the stakes in the South China Sea with China already threatening ill-described ‘countermeasures’ to Azar’s arrival.
Those ‘countermeasures’ could very well be underway as China has sent naval vessels, and other forces into the South China Sea. Taiwan, to the surprise of many in the region, has responded in kind, prompting China to escalate an already worsening situation by deploying multiple launch rocket systems, and amphibious assault vehicles to the mainland area opposite Taiwan. The move is a message to Taipei and Washington, reminding them both of PLA military power in the area, and how China is poised to launch an invasion of Taiwan with a minimal amount of preparation time.
If these moves are not the ‘countermeasures’ that China spoke of, then Beijing has something else in store.
There has been a considerable amount of speculation and debate concerning the recently announced plan to reduce the number of US troops stationed in Germany by half. On one side is the almost customary argument that such a move will weaken NATO, strengthen Russia’s military position, and generally have a negative effect on American national security. We have seen and heard this argument presented a multitude of times since the 90s. It has never really held water, at least not to the level that its proponents would be satisfied with. A second argument being made loudly these days, especially by President Trump’s detractors, is that the planned withdrawal is a politically motivated move. Well, it was partly, and the Trump administration has made no bones about it. The fact is that one of the main reasons for this troop reduction is Germany’s failure to meet NATO’s defense spending goals. In 2014 NATO set a standard for its member-states to halt defense budget cuts and begin moving back towards spending 2% of their GNP by 2024. President Trump has said himself that until Germany pays more for its own defense, US troop levels will be reduced. He has left open the possibility of reversing the reduction plan if Germany starts to devote more money towards its military. To add insult to injury at least half of the troops set to be removed from Germany will find new homes in other European nations from Belgium, and Italy to Poland.
The mention of Poland brings up a third argument, and one that I personally stand behind. The US move is the latest component in what has been a consistent trend towards Eastern Europe for the US military. Deterring Russia has become a top priority for the US, and NATO in recent years. As a result, more US units are being based in Eastern Europe, right now mainly on a rotational basis however there are also permanent bases being constructed, and opened in places such as Romania, and Poland. So it makes sense to move troops, units, and facilities from Germany to Eastern Europe where the combat units will be better able to conduct their mission of deterring Russia, and support elements will be nearer to those combat units.
I have wanted to discuss this topic since the Pentagon made the first announcements about a possible troop reduction in Germany back in June. Unfortunately, Asia has been receiving the lion’s share of geopolitical focus lately. But with July coming to a close, and the subject receiving some attention from the media in recent days, I felt this was an opportune time to get some of my thoughts on the matter written up and placed out there for consumption. 😊
It has not taken long for both the United States and China to start projecting power in the South China Sea on the heels of the US declaration that nearly all of China’s claims in the SCS are unlawful. ‘The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law,’ US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement earlier this week. The statement outlined the position of the United States vis-à-vis China’s expansionist activities, and claims in the SCS region. Just a couple days after Pompeo’s statement, two US carrier strike groups have reentered the South China Sea to conduct exercises. The Pentagon claims the move is unrelated to current events, however, even if true it still sends a message to Beijing. China has responded by deploying 4-6 J-11B Flankers to its airfield on Woody Island, part of the Paracel Islands. A modest move by military standards, but one that sends a message back to Washington.
With US-China relations deteriorating at a rapid clip, Washington has been increasingly concerned that China is using the pandemic as a window of opportunity to expand and solidify its position in the SCS, as well as in other areas. The statement confirming the US position serves to demonstrate resolve and show support for Southeast Asian nations that have been affected by China’s aggressive expansion around the SCS.
Since late June a series of explosions and fires in Iran have gained attention from around the world. The explosions occurred at an X-ray lab in Tehran, a missile base at Parchin, a power plant in Ahvaz, an area that is home to Iran’s Arab minority, and most recently, the enrichment facility at Natanz. At first glance it is readily apparent that at least two of the above-mentioned sites are components of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Natanz alone has garnered headlines in the past when the US-Israel Stuxnet computer virus caused severed damage to the centrifuge program going on there. So, given that a major explosion took place at Natanz last week, and the facility is still the center of Iran’s centrifuge efforts it would be fair to assume that Iran’s nuclear program is once again in someone’s crosshairs.
2020 has not been kind to Iran thus far. The year started with the death of IRGC major general Qasem Soleimani at the hands of a US drone. Iran’s retaliatory missile strike against an airbase in Iraq being used by US troops was ineffective, and inadvertently led to the shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner by an Iranian air defense unit. US economic sanctions continue to have a detrimental effect. Then there is the Covid-19 pandemic, which Iran has had considerable difficulty bringing under control. Now on top of all that, a new effort is likely underway to incapacitate Iran’s nuclear efforts.
Even more significant than determining who could be responsible is asking why it is even necessary. The sensible answer is that Iran is once again making progress in centrifuge production, a step that more than one nation-state has deemed to be unacceptable. The Iranian government has been vociferous in declaring it will soon no longer observe the JCOPA in light of the US removing itself from the deal, and Europe’s inability to garner sanction relief on behalf of Iran from the Trump administration. The US could conceivably be responsible for the recent explosions and fires, seeking to contain Iran’s centrifuge progress. Then there is Israel, which has been conducting a low-key effort against Iranian targets in Syria for months now. The Israeli position on the Iranian nuclear program is well known, and it is well inside the realm of possibility for Tel Aviv to be behind the explosion at Natanz at least.
Iranian leadership is under growing pressure to respond after Natanz. The hardliner majority in the nation’s parliament is becoming loud with demands, however, for the moment the regime seems content to invoke the JCPOA dispute mechanism and play the waiting game until US elections in November. It goes without saying that Tehran would prefer to contend with a Biden administration in the coming years rather than continuing to deal with the more hawkish Trump administration. Therefore, Iran will likely be careful not to spark an incident, or crisis that President Trump can use to his advantage on the campaign trail this fall.