The Washington Post
In Asia, old enemies share a new reality
South Korea and Japan have been estranged neighbors for decades, but now they’re moving to establish a new partnership — and not because the United States told them to. Both countries are rethinking their security posture because they realize the need to counter China’s increasingly aggressive regional expansion. America’s Asian allies are speaking clearly about the rising danger in the Pacific, and the United States should listen.
This week’s historic warming of ties between Seoul and Tokyo was almost completely overlooked in Washington, where pundits and politicians alike have chosen to focus on the latest kerfuffle with Beijing. China’s new foreign minister warned of “conflict and confrontation” unless Washington backs off its competitive strategy. President Xi Jinping blamed China’s economic woes on the United States and its policy of “containment, encirclement and suppression.”
It’s fashionable these days in Washington to assign primary blame to the United States for the downturn in U.s.-china relations. Some claim America’s hawkish stance is the result of politicized groupthink in Washington. The Chinese government exploits this navel-gazing by claiming that Washington is the only reason that China’s international standing is at an all-time low. Chinese propaganda outlets even blamed the new South KoreaJapan thaw on the United States, accusing South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol of “serving as a pawn of the U.S.”
The reality, though, is that the new moves toward cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo are not the result of what people in Washington are thinking or saying. In fact, the U.S. government wasn’t significantly involved in this diplomatic achievement, although President Biden did praise it after the fact.
Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida each took a significant political risk by opening a new chapter in their countries’ relations. But they did it because they believe that the global strategic environment is changing fast and that China’s expansion poses a challenge neither can deal with alone.
Yoon made the first move, by pledging that South Korean funds will be used to compensate World War II victims of Japan’s forced-labor practices, thereby removing a major hurdle that had frozen Tokyo-seoul collaboration. He said last week that Japan had “transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values with us.”
Kishida responded this week by praising Yoon’s actions and pledging to deepen ties with Seoul. This sets the stage for Japan to resume cooperation on everything from intelligence-sharing to supply chains. Next week, Kishida is expected to host Yoon for a summit. Kishida might also invite Yoon to the Group of Seven leaders’ meeting in May in Hiroshima. In April, President Biden will host Yoon for a state dinner.
Washington policymakers tend to view Asia only through the lens of the U.S.China bilateral relationship. But these moves by Tokyo and Seoul show that the problems with Beijing don’t originate in the United States. It is China’s behavior, not Washington’s hawkishness, that is exacerbating tensions in the region.
“Those waving their finger at what they call China policy ‘groupthink’ take a very Washington-centric view of how we got here,” said Eric Sayers, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “This [ Washington] consensus developed after years of diplomatic nudging from our allies in the region, asking us to do more to balance against Chinese coercion.”
Japan is doubling its defense spending over the next five years because it deems that necessary for its defense. South Korea is weaning itself off dependence on the Chinese market and supply chains to protect its own economy. To be sure, both countries also have an interest in managing tensions with China, but they realize that countering its challenge to regional security must take priority.
Asian allies are calling for more U.S. engagement in the region — but they want engagement with them, not with China. They have realized that likeminded countries need to spend more time working with one another and less time trying to conciliate leaders in Beijing and Pyongyang.
Washington needs to make more efforts to reassure Asian allies that the United States is committed to the region, and not just militarily. The U.S. economic investment strategy in Asia is seen as thin on substance. Regional leaders don’t see much impact from the Biden administration’s trade strategy.
“We don’t want a war with China, not a cold one, not a hot one,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (Ill.), the ranking Democrat on the new congressional select committee on U.S.- China relations, told me. “We want peace. We want a durable peace. But to achieve that peace, we have to deter aggression.”
That’s not dangerous groupthink. That’s a rational, bipartisan approach for defending American interests and promoting American values. The demand signal is coming from U.S. allies in the region who are on the front lines. They are mobilizing to meet this challenge head-on, and Washington must respond to their calls for help.