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Top US military official calls on Japan and S Korea to cool tensions

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General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, has urged allies Japan and South Korea to resolve differences that are undermining efforts to deal with China and North Korea.

Speaking en route to Japan for his first overseas trip since becoming the top military adviser to Donald Trump, Gen Milley said it was critical Tokyo and Seoul “get past some of these friction points” that have sparked a significant deterioration in relations.

“It’s clearly in China’s interest and in North Korea’s interest to separate South Korea from Japan and from the US,” Gen Milley told reporters on his aeroplane. “It’s in our interest to keep all three of us very closely aligned.”

The warning comes ahead of the imminent demise of an intelligence-sharing pact between Tokyo and Seoul that has fallen victim to a history-related political spat between the two countries.

South Korea has vowed to abandon the intelligence-sharing agreement this month after Japan imposed restrictions on technology exports to the country. Seoul viewed the move as retaliation for a South Korean court ruling that awarded damages against Japanese companies for using wartime forced labour. The Japanese government argued that all such claims were settled under an agreement in 1965.

Asked if he was optimistic the countries could overcome the impasse, Gen Milley said: “I am hopeful that we can resolve some of these issues over the coming weeks.”

Gen Milley will be in Japan for two days of meetings from Monday, which will include discussions with his military counterpart and Shinzo Abe, prime minister. He will then travel to Seoul for a trilateral meeting with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts.

Seoul claims that abandoning the pact would not undermine security and has suggested the agreement has not been used. But Jeong Kyeong-doo, the South Korean defence minister, recently said officials had sought information from Japan under the pact following a North Korean missile test.

Gen Milley’s visit to Asia comes as Washington and Seoul renegotiate the agreement that determines how much each country contributes to the cost of hosting 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea. Mr Trump has frequently criticised Japan and South Korea for not paying more to host US forces and has publicly voiced the possibility of withdrawing troops.

Seoul has balked at the US demand to increase its contribution from $870m to $5bn and critics said Mr Trump’s comments weakened Washington’s longstanding alliances.

Gen Milley said Mr Trump was not the first president to suggest withdrawing troops, pointing out that Jimmy Carter did the same. But he added that it was important military leaders made it clear to the American public why it was in the US interest to deploy troops in wealthy nations such as Japan and South Korea and how much it cost taxpayers.

“It’s incumbent upon us . . . to make sure that we adequately explain how the US military is a stabilising force in north-east Asia, and preventing and deterring the outbreak of armed conflict,” said Gen Milley.

Concerns about the strength of US alliances have grown as Mr Trump has criticised Nato countries for not spending enough on defence. Emmanuel Macron, French president, last week sparked a rift with Germany and other Nato allies when he warned that the transatlantic security alliance was suffering “brain death”.

Gen Milley said Nato was under strain but stressed it was vital that Nato members spent 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on defence. Tokyo and Seoul, he added, were protected by a “mutually beneficial alliance system” that had helped prevent “great power wars” over the past seven decades.

“We’re now in a period of time when that system is under great stress . . . and President Macron is making the observation that that’s fraying,” he said.

“There are various other people out there that are making those same observations . . . If that post-world war two international order breaks down completely, then be careful, because the era of great power competition could turn into something far more dramatically worse.”

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo and Edward White on Twitter: @dimi and @edwardwhitenz

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