US-Ja­pan ties pose dilemma for Seoul


The strength­en­ing U.S.-Ja­pan al­liance is pos­ing a strate­gic dilemma for South Korea as its re­la­tions with Tokyo show no signs of im­prov­ing, while the need for se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion over North Korea’s mil­i­tary threats rises.

Cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the U.S. back­ing, Tokyo has been striv­ing to carve out an ad­van­ta­geous po­si­tion in the chang­ing con­tours of re­gional se­cu­rity, rais­ing calls for Seoul to move be­yond the his­tor­i­cal an­i­mosi­ties and pur­sue what bet­ter serves its prac­ti­cal in­ter­ests.

Seoul has re­mained re­luc­tant to take pre­emp­tive steps to re­store ties with Tokyo due to the lat­ter’s lack of atone­ment for its wartime mis­deeds, in­clud­ing the sex­ual en­slave­ment of Korean women, and re­peated claim to Korea’s east­ern­most islets of Dokdo.

“With the U.S.-Ja­pan al­liance get­ting stronger and the emerg­ing signs of a thaw in the Sino-Ja­pan re­la­tions, Seoul has been put in a some­what awk­ward po­si­tion, which calls for its more ac­tive diplo­macy to­ward Tokyo,” said Lee Won-deog, in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor at Kook­min Uni­ver­sity.

“Fet­tered by the past, Seoul has seen Ja­pan-re­lated is­sues through the lens of his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. But it also needs to treat them from the stand­points of se­cu­rity and eco­nomics, mean­ing it needs a re­strained and bal­anced ap­proach.”

The ef­forts to strengthen the U.S.-Ja­pan al­liance are ex­pected to cul­mi­nate in the re­vi­sion of the al­lies’ de­fense co­op­er­a­tion guide­lines and their agree­ment on a ma­jor Pa­cific free trade pact, which they are set to fi­nal­ize dur­ing Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe’ trip to the U.S. this week.

Wash­ing­ton and Tokyo’s fo­cus on a “for­ward- look­ing” pol­icy is ex­pected to raise pres­sure on Seoul to do more to en­hance the frayed ties with Tokyo par­tic­u­larly when a nu­clear-am­bi­tious North Korea re­mains a grave se­cu­rity chal­lenge for all three na­tions.

Up­graded US-Ja­pan Al­liance

With their shared strate­gic goal of main­tain­ing the cur­rent re­gional or­der that is be­ing re­shaped by the rise of main­land China, Wash­ing- ton and Tokyo have been striv­ing to up­grade their long-stand­ing al­liance.

The re­vi­sion of the al­lies’ 1997 de­fense guide­lines and the bi­lat­eral agree­ment on the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship an en­vi­sioned free trade deal link­ing 12 Pa­cific-rim states will be the cli­max of their ef­forts to deepen and broaden the al­liance, ob­servers say.

“The U.S. and Ja­pan are now work­ing on re­mov­ing a set of el­e­ments that hin­der the evolve­ment of their al­liance so that they can fur­ther tighten their ties to bet­ter cope with emerg­ing chal­lenges in­clud­ing those from China,” said Park Won-gon, se­cu­rity ex­pert at Han­dong Global Uni­ver­sity.

The re­vi­sion of the guide­lines sched­uled for Mon­day is likely to broaden Ja­pan’s se­cu­rity role, which has been limited un­der the war-re­nounc­ing Ar­ti­cle 9 of the Con­sti­tu­tion a change that the U.S. has long en­cour­aged over the last few decades.

With the re­vi­sion, the U. S.Ja­pan al­liance is to be el­e­vated to the level of the South Korea-U.S. al­liance as both Asian al­lies will be able to come to the de­fense of the U.S. should it be un­der attack.

“This ( Wash­ing­ton’s call for Tokyo’s ex­panded se­cu­rity role) has been a con­sis­tent and non­par­ti­san push by the U. S. gov­ern­ment which is very rare and car­ried on through­out the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, and now the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said Balbina Hwang, for­mer State Depart­ment ad­viser and diplo­macy ex­pert at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity.

“Prime Min­is­ter Abe is build­ing on this de­sire and uti­liz­ing it for his own na­tion­al­ist agenda, which is to strengthen his coun­try, raise Ja­pan’s pro­file and be­come a more ‘nor­mal’ coun­try.”

The re­vi­sion to the guide­lines has been made when the need arose to re­flect new se­cu­rity chal­lenges fac­ing the al­liance. First adopted in 1978 to counter Soviet threats, the guide­lines were last amended in 1997 to re­flect postCold War se­cu­rity threats.

Ac­cord­ing to Ja­panese me­dia re­ports, the re­vised guide­lines are to stip­u­late that the U.S. and Ja­pan would col­lec­tively de­fend the set of dis­puted is­lands in the East China Sea, which is called Senkaku in Ja­pan and Diaoyu in China, should China attack the is­lands.

The re­vi­sion is also re­ported to spec­ify the al­lies’ se­cu­rity roles

the de­fense of the Ja­panese main­land for Ja­pan’s Self-De­fense Forces and the coun­terstrike on en­emy ter­ri­tory for U.S. troops.

To legally jus­tify Ja­pan’s ex­panded se­cu­rity role, namely col­lec­tive self-de­fense the use of force to help its ally un­der attack, Tokyo al­tered its con­sti­tu­tional in­ter­pre­ta­tion last July rather than pur­su­ing the tougher process of rewrit­ing the 1947 paci­fist con­sti­tu­tion.

It is also push­ing to over­haul its lo­cal se­cu­rity laws to en­able Ja­pan to pro­vide rear-area mil­i­tary sup­port to the U.S. not only in the ar­eas sur­round­ing Ja­pan, but also in the en­tire world a move that a fi­nan­cially strained Wash­ing­ton wel­comes.

“With Ja­pan’s Self- De­fense Forces ex­er­cis­ing the right to col- lec­tive de­fense and its al­liance with the U.S. be­ing glob­al­ized, Ja­panese troops can be dis­patched to the Mid­dle East, Africa and else­where in the world as per the U.S. re­quests,” said Kim Soung-chul, se­nior fel­low at the lo­cal think tank Se­jong In­sti­tute.

“As Abe is do­ing what the U.S. wants se­cu­rity-wise, the Ja­panese leader has ap­par­ently been per­ceived as a good part­ner for Wash­ing­ton.”

On the eco­nomic front, the U.S. and Ja­pan are ex­pected to reach a broad agree­ment over the TPP dur­ing the sum­mit be­tween U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Abe, which is sched­uled to take place in Wash­ing­ton on Tues­day.

The agree­ment over the 12-na­tion free-trade deal that would cover a third of the world’s trade is to fur­ther en­hance the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship and help ad­vance Obama’s core eco­nomic pol­icy agenda.

The U.S. has been lead­ing the ne­go­ti­a­tions over the TPP, which an­a­lysts say can help counter China’s grow­ing eco­nomic clout.

Due to high stan­dards on in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, la­bor rights and the en­vi­ron­ment, China has been ef­fec­tively ex­cluded from the TPP ne­go­ti­a­tions a rea­son why Bei­jing has pushed for the Re­gional Com­pre­hen­sive Eco­nomic Part­ner­ship, a mooted free-trade deal in­volv­ing 16 na­tions in­clud­ing South Korea, China and Ja­pan.

Strate­gic Dilemma for Seoul

The en­hanced U.S.-Ja­pan al­liance is likely to es­ca­late pres­sure on Seoul to im­prove ties with Tokyo and the tri­lat­eral se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion that Wash­ing­ton has pushed for as a cen­ter­piece of its re­bal­ance to the re­gion.

“As the U.S. and Ja­pan are firm­ing up their al­liance, they seek to jointly keep main­land China, Rus­sia and North Korea in check, and for this, Wash­ing­ton re­gards Tokyo as a very im­por­tant part­ner,” said Kim of the Se­jong In­sti­tute.

“As South Korea has been seek­ing to tighten re­la­tions with China, there might be some public opin­ion in the U.S. that the U.S.Ja­pan al­liance is strate­gi­cally more in­valu­able than the Korea-U.S. al­liance.”

Although the lead­ers of South Korea and the U.S. have re­peat­edly high­lighted the strength and depth of their evolv­ing al­liance, signs of fric­tion in the re­la­tion­ship have ap­par­ently been emerg­ing, some an­a­lysts noted.

“The U. S. has agreed to a con­di­tions-based trans­fer of wartime op­er­a­tional con­trol, floated the idea of sta­tion­ing an ad­vanced mis­sile de­fense as­set here in Korea, and asked Seoul to separately deal with his­tory and other prac­ti­cal is­sues,” said a se­cu­rity ex­pert, de­clin­ing to be iden­ti­fied.

“But Seoul ap­pears not to have re­sponded to that pos­i­tively. So, there could be some com­plaints from the U.S. brew­ing be­low the sur­face.”

Well aware of the need for the en­hanced se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion with Ja­pan and the U.S., Seoul has re­it­er­ated that it would take a “two-track” ap­proach un­der which it would stick to its stern stance over his­tory, but keep co­op­er­a­tive ties with Tokyo in the eco­nomic and se­cu­rity realms.

How­ever, the public sen­ti­ment has al­ways got­ten in the way. An­tiJa­panese sen­ti­ment has been de­te­ri­o­rat­ing as Tokyo has been seen at­tempt­ing to white­wash or gloss over its wartime wrong­do­ings and step­ping up sovereignty claims to Dokdo.

Some se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials have pointed to the need for Seoul to adopt a for­ward-look­ing stance to fo­cus on the fu­ture rather than on the past.

But their ef­forts to foster rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween the U.S. al­lies have been met with a strong back­lash here. Crit­ics ar­gue the U.S. of­fi­cials sug­gested Seoul was also to blame for strained ties with Tokyo.

Hwang of Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity said that his­tor­i­cal events should be re­mem­bered and taught, but pol­icy fo­cus should be on the dan­ger in the fu­ture, not the past, and what coun­tries can do to en­sure a bet­ter fu­ture.

“If Ja­pan, Korea and China in­sist on fo­cus­ing pri­mar­ily on the prob­lems of his­tory, then the fu­ture will be just as grim as the past,” she said.

“The U. S. should also not blindly pur­sue tri­lat­eral se­cu­rity (U.S.-Ja­pan-South Korea) with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing that his­tory is­sues are real and im­por­tant for Asians,” she added.

Tokyo’s re­cent moves to en­hance ties with Bei­jing have also un­der­scored the need for Seoul to em­ploy a more proac­tive strat­egy to max­i­mize its diplo­matic in­ter­ests in the volatile geopol­i­tics of North­east Asia.

Abe and Chi­nese leader Xi Jin­ping held a sum­mit on the side­lines of the Asian African Sum­mit, in Ban­dung, In­done­sia, last Wed­nes­day.

Sig­nal­ing a thaw, they shared the view that the two sides should be part­ners for each other, not a po­ten­tial threat.

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