Informal Institute for National Security Thinkers and Practitioners - News from the Associate Director, Security Studies Program
Saturday, October 12, 2013
U.S.-Japan Defense Accord Rankles South Korea
I asked Ambassador Ahn a question yesterday at the ICAS symposium after he discussed the "Asian Paradox" (simply the paradox that the Asian nations have grown more economically interdependent over time while their political relationships have been declining and becoming more strained).
Some would say that for the Untied States the relationship between its two most important treaty allies Korea and Japan is very important and key to its security, political and economic interests in Northeast Asia. Given the history between the two and the growing friction I asked what advice he would offer to the U.S. In how to help improve the ROK-Japan relationship in the future. Are there specific actions the US should take (an example being the current ROK-Japan-US naval exercises taking place in the East Sea)? He went on to describe how he had hoped that with the elections of President Park and Prime Minister Abe they could consider history as beginning in January 2013. He was hopeful for the first 3 months of 2013 and then in March things changed and he went on to describe the Japanese actions that have strained relations and highlighted the historical animosity. But the specific answer to my question was ultimate one of a season diplomat. He said that he was confident that the US would act wisely in terms of its relationship with both of its alliance partners.
The front-page picture in Korean newspapers told the story of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
South Korea's President Park Geun Hye, looking frosty and gazing in the opposite direction, ignored Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe standing next to her at the October 7 APEC in Bali. The two leaders barely exchanged greetings, according to a Japanese news dispatch, and kept their contact to a minimum, "only for a few seconds."
The awkward encounter was emblematic of widening gulf between two crucial East Asian neighbors, unable to settle age-old differences over past history, even as their security environment worsens with China's territorial assertiveness and North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.
But it was not just bilateral issues dividing them. Broadening US security ties with Japan is fueling resentment in South Korea that the US is eroding Seoul's strategic options by beefing up Japan. The October 3 US-Japanese agreement to revise their defense cooperation guidelines next year has raised the specter of Washington drastically strengthening Japan's independent military capability. This prompts concerns in Seoul that Japan, an ancient foe, may assume greater responsibility for regional defense on behalf of the United States. South Korea analysts fear that their country might once again become the proverbial shrimp caught between two Asian whales - Japan and China.
Such a prospect evokes unpalatable memories of Japanese invasions, occupation and brutalities - smack in the face of nuclear threats from the North. Increased Japanese responsibility not only augurs negatively for Seoul's independent strategic space but interferes with Seoul's attempt to forge stronger ties with China and use Beijing's leverage in containing North Korea's nuclear capability.
The US is shifting more responsibility to South Korea, too.
During his four-day trip to Seoul for assessment of North Korea's military capability, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a series of steps that would bolster the bilateral military alliance. His visit came against the backdrop of increasing US commitment for the defense of South Korea, which hosts 28,500 US troops. In their assessment of South Korean capability, Hagel and Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin came close to agreement on delaying the transfer of command authority of the combined forces to a Korean general in 2015. They also signed a new "strategic framework" authorizing what Korean officials described as "preemptive attack" on the North's nuclear facility in the event of a nuclear or missile attack against the South.
Then, Hagel traveled to Tokyo on October 3. Joined by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Hagel signed an agreement calling for revision of the US-Japan Defense Cooperation guidelines next year. The Obama administration did not consult Seoul on the decision to beef up the Japanese military capability. The angst in Seoul was exacerbated by the fact that the agreement came in the midst of the Abe government seeking what it called collective self-defense, which would allow Japan to consider an attack on its ally as attack on itself. That not only would make Japan a significant military force in the region, it would necessarily involve reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution that prohibits its rearmament.
The new guidelines clearly target North Korea with its nuclear arms and missile launches. Although China wasn't mentioned in the agreement, the guidelines suggest that China is becoming a new source of tension for Japan over territorial claims for nearby islets called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.
The prospect of being sandwiched between a military superpower of China to the north and an unrepentant former colonial power, newly arming itself with help from the United States, discomfits Seoul. The strategy also interferes with President Park's policy of forging better relations with Beijing, which has considerable leverage over North Korea. At the same time, China is also a massive economic partner for South Korea, claiming a quarter of the country's global trade volume.
In contrast to frosty relations with Tokyo, Chinese President Xi Jinping at APEC offered more assurance of China's involvement in keeping North Korea under control. Meeting on the sidelines of summit, Xi assured Park that China not only banned a long list of export items that the North could use for developing its nuclear weapons technology, he declared Beijing stood "resolutely" against another nuclear test by the North. Indeed, he promised, China will scrupulously adhere to the UN Security Council resolution keeping North Korea under strict sanctions.
In short, China is going an extra mile to woo South Korea, in the hope of keeping the latter neutral if not on its side in the current competition for influence in East Asia.