WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s top two officials said they are increasingly concerned about a growing rift between Japan and South Korea, with the two critical allies severing key intelligence-sharing and other military ties.
The deepening divide plays right into the hands of China and Russia, both working together to undermine U.S. alliances in the Pacific, Pentagon officials said.
Speaking at a Pentagon press conference on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Joe Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they are disappointed that Japan and South Korea cannot work through their disagreements and focus on the “common threats” of China and North Korea.
“We are stronger when we all work together,” Esper said.
Last week South Korea terminated the intelligence-sharing pact it had with Japan, the result of an increasingly harsh trade and diplomatic scrape between the two nations.
Dunford said there are other ways to share intelligence with and between the two allies but conceded the now-ended pact was the best, quickest and most thorough.
The press conference by Esper, the top civilian leader, and Dunford, the top military leader, in the Pentagon was their first since last August.
The fallout between the key U.S. allies comes as Esper has begun pursuing his strategy of increasing the U.S. presence in the Pacific to counter China and, to a lesser extent, Russia.
Those steps include adding new bases, increasing freedom-of-navigation operations, possibly installing intermediate-range missiles, and increasing the submarine fleet — “well-built machines of war, if you will,” as Esper called them in remarks made on Tuesday.
In regards to Afghanistan, Dunford said it is too early to talk about a U.S. military withdrawal from the nation, where war has raged since October 2001, despite reported progress in peace talks. He noted how the size of the U.S. and coalition force has dropped from about 140,000 earlier this decade to about 22,000 now.
“I’m not using the ‘withdraw” word right now,” Dunford said.
Dunford said Afghan troops cannot yet alone sustain anti-terrorist operations in the present environment. A peace treaty could change the environment, he said, but as of yet Kabul cannot yet manage security conditions on the ground.
Esper said the Pentagon will keep all military options on the table but looked skeptical and chuckled when asked about the idea of using nuclear weapons in the war.