Humphrey Hawksley considers how escalating tensions between Tokyo and Seoularejeopardising peace in the region and leaving it vulnerable to Chinese exploitation
The American-led pushback against Chinese expansion has exposed a critical vulnerability in the Asia-Pacific which Washington believes needs urgent resolution.
Security analysts argue that the failure of its two staunchest Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, to resolve historical grievances puts at risk long-term US regional power-projection.Until this is settled, there can be no creation of a multi-lateral security alliance aimed at keeping in check Chinese influence.
Both Japan and South Korea have firmly-locked security treaties and tens of thousands of US troops stationed on their soil. But their lines of communication go through the Pentagon and not to each other because of mutual antagonism that hasincreased in recent months.
Their rhetoric now resembles more ancient feuds of the Middle East and the Balkans than forward-looking East Asia. This continuing rift is already being exploited by Beijing, which has a proven knack of capitalising on divisions between allies for its own gain.
‘Japan and South Korea are the weak link,’ says regional analyst Kevin Maher, who served 30 years with the State Department. ‘They need to respond to regional threats together.’
The antagonism dates back more than 70 years to the colonisation of the Korean peninsula that ran from the 1870s to Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War in 1945. Contentious issues revolve around Japan’s colonial brutality, symbolised by the forcing of Koreans into prostitution to become what are known as ‘comfort women’.
Over the decades, Tokyo has apologised and reparations have been made. But far from healing, these sores have become more raw under the administration of South Korea’s President Moon Jai-in, who came to office in 2017 after the controverisal ousting of President Park Geun-hye on corruption charges.
Moon has reversed much of the bilateral rapprochement, leading to accusations from his opponents that he is a North Korean spy and an ally of Beijing. Most significantly, he scrapped a 2015 agreement – hailed as ‘final and irreversible’ – to end the dispute over ‘comfort women’.
Other issues have flared up, too. The South Korean courts have ruled that Mitsubishi, Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corp. must pay compensation for historical Japanese forced labour and Seoul municipal authorities have cancelled a construction permit for a new Japanese embassy.
The Moon administation has also put blocks on expanding deployment of the US THAAD anti-missile defence system and strictly limited a 2016 intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan to North Korean activities only, not the wider region. It has taken off the table any prospect of an envisaged tripartite military alliance with Japan.
There is now increasing pressure from Washington and some sectors of South Korea’s political establishment to put an end to the tension and forge a regional grouping that reflects Japanese, South Korean and, largely, Western democratic values.
‘We have seen such an alliance within the European Union,’ Seoul mayor and South Korean presidential candidate Park Won-soon told a Northeast Asia security conference in May. ‘The same thing can happen in Northeast Asia and then the world can see the Korean peninsula as a compass for peace.’
The reference to Europe is important precisely because the deteriorating Japan-South Korea relationship is blocking the building of political and defence institutions like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which have kept that region mostly peaceful and secure since the Second World War.
An understanding between France, Germany and Britain, overseen by the US, to use trade to minimise differences was key to building a modern Europe. In a similar way, how China, Japan, South Korea and the wider region handle each other in the coming years will determine the future of the Asia-Pacific.
At present, the US has four defence treaties with Asian governments which, in order of importance, are Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand. These are, however, bilateral agreements; there is no regional hub, as with NATO in Brussels, through which regional defence policies are decided and this underlines two flaws in current Western policy.
The first allows Beijing to narrate the Asia-Pacific power balance as a contest between China and the US, thus producing a scenario of Washington creating a new Cold War.
The second is that Asian governments are unable to carry out the difficult work of forging institutions that could evolve over the decades as independent entities less reliant on direct US intervention.
In this respect, Japan and South Korea could learn much from Southeast Asia’s recent experience of what unfolds if regional governments fail to build strong, united fronts.
Despite the Association of Southeast Asian Nations being a long-established institution, its ten members have been too weak to deal with China’s building of military bases in the South China Sea.
The result is that these shipping lanes, a lifeblood of global trade, are policed by American warships that routinely come face-to-face with the Chinese military, thus giving food to the new Cold War narrative.
There is now a real possibility of China successfully exploiting similar divisions between Japan and South Korea and, with North Korea remaining a live and dangerous problem, the stakes in Northeast Asia are much higher.
All this is a far cry from the successes of the past half century, when Japan and then South Korea led the way in proving that liberal democracy could flourish in non-European societies. They emerged from two horrific wars to become world-class economies and build companies that are global household names.
They now have an opportunity to blaze a trail in building defence arrangements that would secure the style of governance that has made both countries so prosperous.
If Japan and South Korea could achieve this it could pave the way for the Philippines and Thailand to join too. Other governments may then follow suit, such as Singapore and Malaysia, which are already part of the 1971 Five Power Defence Arrangement with Australia, Britain and New Zealand. Although mothballed for years, the FPDA is being revived precisely because of the China challenge.
But if Japan and South Korea dig in their heels and prioritise history over future defence, China’s grip over the Korean peninsula will almost certainly become stronger.
In Seoul’s National Folk Museum, Beijing’s centuries-long sway over Korean society is evident in government documents written in Chinese dating back to the early 17th century about medicine, farming and other run-of-mill community issues. The only Japanese references are to war and brutality.
Should the US security umbrella weaken enough to present South Koreans with a choice between China or Japan, it is clear where their natural allegiance would lie.