Why US is an on­looker in S.korea-ja­pan row

Global Times US Edition - - ASIANREVIE­W - By Zhang Yun

Fray­ing re­la­tions be­tween Ja­pan and South Korea since 2018 have reached a nadir – the low­est point since 1965 when the two coun­tries nor­mal­ized diplo­matic ties. Re­la­tions have taken a beat­ing over three sen­si­tive flash­points – the “com­fort women” is­sue, com­pen­sa­tion for South Korean peo­ple forced to work for Ja­panese firms dur­ing WWII and a war­ship radar lock-on in­ci­dent. Ja­pan has re­cently tight­ened re­stric­tions on its ex­port of high-tech ma­te­ri­als to South Korea. The Ja­panese Min­istry of Econ­omy, Trade and In­dus­try said that the “re­la­tion­ship of trust [be­tween the two sides] has been markedly dam­aged.”

Un­du­la­tions in Ja­pan-south Korea re­la­tions af­ter the Cold War are not new. But this time the US seems to have no in­ter­est in play­ing peacenik be­tween its two im­por­tant al­lies in North­east Asia. Some be­lieve this can lead to long-term an­tag­o­nism be­tween the two coun­tries. David Stil­well, the US assistant sec­re­tary of state for East Asian and Pa­cific Af­fairs, told Ja­panese me­dia that the US has no plans to me­di­ate the spat, but would only en­cour­age both sides to fo­cus on key re­gional is­sues and in par­tic­u­lar North Korea.

The­o­ret­i­cally, if Ja­pan, South Korea and the US can form a tri­lat­eral al­liance to re­place the cur­rent Ja­pan-us and South Korea-us al­liance, the US mil­i­tary pres­ence in East Asia will be but­tressed. The three coun­tries will then form a Nato-like col­lec­tive se­cu­rity struc­ture.

Wash­ing­ton has been stress­ing that strate­gic in­ter­ests are above his­tor­i­cal is­sues and ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes in its re­la­tions with Tokyo and Seoul. Dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, the US used to play the role of me­di­a­tor be­tween Ja­pan and South Korea. For ex­am­ple, in a bid to strengthen tri­lat­eral re­la­tions, for­mer US pres­i­dent Barack Obama held a meet­ing in The Hague in 2014 with Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe and then South Korean pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye.

But why is the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Don­ald Trump not in­ter­ested in get­ting in­volved in the Ja­pan-south Korea spat? How will this af­fect the US se­cu­rity struc­ture in North­east Asia?

First, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has bro­ken with pre­vi­ous US poli­cies on North Korea. In open­ing up a di­rect di­a­logue with Py­ongyang, Wash­ing­ton has for­saken the tra­di­tion of us­ing North Korea to strengthen Ja­pan-south Korea-us co­op­er­a­tion. Trump hoped to make a break­through on the Korean Penin­sula nu­clear is­sue and scaled down joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises with South Korea.

China, South Korea and Rus­sia are all try­ing to per­suade the US to lift eco­nomic sanc­tions on North Korea, while Ja­pan has been em­pha­siz­ing the is­sue of North Korea’s ab­duc­tions of Ja­panese na­tion­als. Thus Ja­pan and South Korea have dif­fer­ent ex­pec­ta­tions for Wash­ing­ton’s pol­icy to­ward Py­ongyang. There­fore, for Wash­ing­ton, in­ter­ven­ing in Tokyo-seoul re­la­tions may serve nei­ther side.

The nu­clear cri­sis on the Korean Penin­sula has been the only pivot for po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Ja­pan, South Korea and the US. If such pivot is shaken, there will be fun­da­men­tal changes in North­east Asia’s se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion. Dur­ing the lat­est round of diplo­matic flurry on the Korean Penin­sula, North Korea has al­ready had di­rect talks with four out of six mem­bers of the Six-party Talks, leav­ing Ja­pan be­hind. This has added to Ja­pan’s strate­gic anx­i­ety. On the one hand, Wash­ing­ton may re­as­sure Tokyo to sta­bi­lize their al­liance; on the other hand, it may start diplo­macy with Py­ongyang at the ap­pro­pri­ate mo­ment.

Se­cond, the US failed to strengthen Ja­pan-south Korea re­la­tions to set up a tri­lat­eral al­liance. Al­though the US tried to pro­mote a quasi-tri­lat­eral al­liance and Tokyo and Seoul reached agree­ments on in­tel­li­gence shar­ing, Ja­pan-south Korea de­fense co­op­er­a­tion could not be forged be­cause of his­tor­i­cal prob­lems, po­lit­i­cal dis­trust and ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes. Be­sides, a tri­lat­eral al­liance means the in­te­gra­tion of the three coun­tries’ mil­i­tary. This will trig­ger strong op­po­si­tion from North Korea, China and Rus­sia, lead­ing to re­gional ten­sions as there has al­ready been much un­ease in US re­la­tions with China and Rus­sia. Hence the best choice for Wash­ing­ton would be to main­tain bi­lat­eral al­liances with both Seoul and Tokyo.

Third, pe­ri­odic ten­sions in Ja­pan­south Korea re­la­tions oc­cur be­cause of his­tor­i­cal is­sues and the power change in North­east Asia. Wash­ing­ton can­not do much to help. With China’s rise and South Korea’s vault­ing eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment af­ter the Cold War, South Korea’s econ­omy has be­come more closely linked with that of China al­though the US and South Korea are still al­lies. South Korea will have to think more from China’s per­spec­tive and that of its own, and less from that of US and Ja­pan. For the US, in­ter­ven­ing in his­tor­i­cal and ter­ri­to­rial is­sues be­tween Ja­pan and South Korea means it has to choose sides. Thus Wash­ing­ton has cho­sen not to get in­volved.

This in­di­cates the weak­en­ing con­trol of the US on its two North­east Asian al­lies. In other words, Ja­pan and South Korea now have more strate­gic in­de­pen­dence. In­deed, this may whip up na­tion­al­ism in the two coun­tries and af­fect the sit­u­a­tion in the re­gion. The two coun­tries’ strate­gic think­ing used to be cen­tered on Wash­ing­ton be­cause of the al­liance sys­tem. Ja­pan and South Korea lack mu­tual trust and mo­ti­va­tion to de­velop bi­lat­eral re­la­tions, and have de­pended too much on US me­di­a­tion.

But chal­lenge also leads to cre­ativ­ity and op­por­tu­nity. For the US, de­vel­op­ing a more com­pat­i­ble se­cu­rity struc­ture in North­east Asia means it can main­tain its long-term in­ter­ests and pres­ence in the re­gion. Mean­while, it is time for Ja­pan and South Korea to be less de­pen­dent on the US and find their way out. The au­thor is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of Na­tional Ni­igata Univer­sity Ja­pan and a se­nior fel­low at the In­sti­tute of Ad­vanced Area Stud­ies and Global Gov­er­nance, Bei­jing Foreign Stud­ies Univer­sity. opin­[email protected]­s.com.cn

Il­lus­tra­tion: Liu RUI/GT

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