South Korea and Japan share common difficulties. Whether it`s the slumping global economy or the North Korea nuclear disarmament issue, Seoul and Tokyo need to work together in overcoming those challenges, according to Masashi Nishihara. In an email interview with The Korea Herald, the head of the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Peace and Security outlined the challenges ahead in 2009 from a Japanese perspective.
Korea Herald: What is your broad outlook for the region in 2009?
Nishihara: This year the top concern for all leaders of the region must be how to get their respective countries out from the economic fallout. This includes determining how much funds the governments will have to inject into the private sector to stimulate the business climate and promote foreign investment. Controlling unemployment will be a major challenge for Japan and South Korea, and especially for China. In the worst case we may see social unrest in China.
The Strait of Taiwan and the Korean peninsula continue to be potential flashpoints. The cross-strait relations are much more stable today than North-South relations. Pyongyang`s recent hostile remarks about South Korea and Kim Jong-il`s health problems may bring about armed tensions, if not armed conflict, in 2009. In addition, the six-party talks will persistently suffer from North Korea`s cunning negotiation tactics, by which Pyongyang will try to extract maximum economic benefits from the U.S. and allow for minimum concessions on nuclear issues.
The Obama administration is likely to pay greater attention to East Asia than the previous administration did, although its foreign policy priority for 2009 will begin with the Middle East and Afghanistan.
KH: Now that Barack Obama is the new president of the United States, how does this affect East Asia?
Nishihara: The new administration will probably bring the United States closer to East Asia by appointing a special envoy to deal with North Korea`s nuclear issues, so that a new assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific can work on the whole region. Christopher Hill, who was the assistant secretary of state, spent much of his time and energy on North Korea, neglecting other important issues in the region such as environmental problems, maritime security, and terrorism as well as China`s military buildup and its poor human rights record.
KH: You recently penned an article where you asserted that Obama needed to address some outstanding bilateral issues. Is there a sense of uncertainty in Tokyo regarding Obama`s focus on the U.S.-Japan relationship?
Nishihara: Because previous Democratic presidents have tended to be protectionist, there is fear in some quarters of the Japanese government that the Obama administration may be tougher with Japan on trade issues than the Bush administration was. Many Japanese also suspect that the new administration will weigh the U.S. relationship with China with greater importance. I personally believe that the Obama team will sustain the alliance with Japan as a key to U.S. foreign and security policy toward the Asia Pacific region.
On the whole, the Japanese-American alliance is strong and effective, but it still has ups and downs. Occasionally we experience a discrepancy in mutual expectations. One recent example was that Japan had expected the United States to maintain its economic sanctions against North Korea until the latter concedes to Japan on the abduction issue. However, last October, when the Bush administration removed North Korea from the list of terrorism-supporting states, many Japanese felt "betrayed." This is what I meant when I wrote the article, arguing that the two allies should have closer consultations. We have other problems such as host nation support (HNS), base relocation, ballistic missile defense (BMD), and an extended nuclear deterrent.
KH: Regarding the Obama team`s proposal for a trilateral summit between the United States, Japan and China, do you think this would have an effect on the region`s balance of power? Where would South Korea, which is not a huge power in the region, fit into the scheme of things?
Nishihara: I don`t think that the proposed trilateral summit, which the Obama team is likely to advocate, will change the balance of power in the Asia Pacific region, as long as the basic structure of the Japan-U.S. alliance versus China is retained. While I support the U.S. efforts in building a partnership with China, if the United States should develop its partnership with China at the expense of the alliance with Japan, there will then be a fundamental change in power relations in the region.
China`s strategic interest is to drive a wedge between the United States and Japan, thereby weakening the alliance. It will be difficult to hold meaningful discussions among the three top leaders. I would like the trilateral discussions to begin at the lower level, not at the highest level.
Because it is a smaller actor, South Korea will not fit in the scheme of the trilateral talks. It should demand, however, that the United States, Japan, and China not make decisions related to the security of the Korean peninsula without prior consultation with South Korea. We have other overlapping trilaterals such as the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group among Japan, South Korea, the United States on North Korea`s nuclear problems, and the trilateral summit among Japan, South Korea, and China. We also have of course bi-national talks. South Korea has sufficient schemes by which it can voice and defend its interests.
KH: As for the relationship between South Korea and Japan, what are some of the key issues to look out for this year?
Nishihara: I would like to note three key points: First, how fast the two countries can work together to overcome the negative impact of the current global financial meltdown is vitally important. Japan should cooperate with South Korea in preventing the Korean currency from falling any further and in reducing the latter`s trade deficit, which may have increased up to $32 billion for 2008, the largest trade deficit to date. Can Japan, which has to expand its domestic market, increase the imports from South Korea? This is a big challenge.
Second, North Korea may cause new tensions for us. Its political succession problem, nuclear issues, and occasional skirmishes around the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea border west of South Korea will continue to be factors of concern. South Korea and the United States have recently sharpened their plans to meet contingency situations in North Korea, so have Japan and the United States. We should watch what the North is really up to.
Third, how long the Aso government can last is also an important matter for Japan, and in fact, for the two countries. President Lee Myung-bak and Prime Minister Taro Aso have been meeting each other every month since October last year, and last week they met for the fifth time. It is essential for the leaders of our two countries to know each other well on a personal basis, particularly at this time of crisis. Aso`s popularity rating today is as low as 18 percent or so. Japan`s lower house elections will take place before September, when the four-year tenure of its members expires. Can Aso`s coalition government come back after elections? If the Democratic Party wins the elections, will it inherit Aso`s pro-Korea policy? We don`t know yet.
KH: That being said, what is your assessment of the recent summit meeting between the two leaders?
Nishihara: The summit meeting took place at a very timely moment. Facing the economic and financial crises, President Lee Myung-bak wanted to get more help from Japan. Being a pragmatist, he decided not to raise historical and territorial disputes. Prime Minister Aso wanted to seize this opportunity to improve the bilateral relations. South Korea has just signed a contact with the Mitsubishi Heavy Industry, to launch South Korea`s satellite with MHI`s H2-A rocket. It will be Japan`s first commercial launch. This creates a welcome climate of collaboration between our two countries.
The Aso-Lee meeting also was held just a week before Barack Obama entered the White House. It was good timing that the two leaders discussed how their countries can cooperate with the new U.S. administration and on how to improve the situation in Afghanistan. They also confirmed the importance of coordinating their policies and responses to North Korea.
The two leaders stated that the negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement should be resumed. However, considering that a free trade agreement, if implemented today, is likely to end up with a substantial increase in South Korea`s trade deficit, an FTA will not be concluded in the near future.
KH: Historical issues often tend to be a sticking point between Japan and its neighbors. What can be done to ultimately overcome the past and to truly achieve the often stated "future-oriented" relationship?
Nishihara: There is no good answer to it. I understand how difficult it is for Koreans to overcome their emotions against Japan`s wartime conduct. Even if the Japanese government most sincerely tries to redeem itself, the mental scars on the Koreans will not be healed for many decades to come. However, while they may not be able to forget the past, I believe they can become mentally stronger and control their emotions. When they keep condemning the Japanese, they only make the Japanese feel pitiful and annoyed. However, if they mentally become stronger and act in a dignified manner, they make the Japanese feel more respectful.
We have different interpretations of history. It is only natural to have more than one interpretation of a historical fact. I only call for fair and open-minded debates, which are the only way to close the gap. Considering that differences in interpretation of history cannot be dissolved quickly, they should be discussed not at the level of top political leadership but at the academic level. What the Lee Myung-bak government has been doing is just right. We should continue to decouple historical debates from politics.
Takeshima or Dokdo is really a sticking point. Japan claims the Northern Islands or what the Russians call the Southern Kuriles. However, the Russians who have had de facto control over the islands have agreed to allow Japanese fishermen to enter designated areas for fishing and certain Japanese citizens visit the islands. The Russians are pragmatic in this sense. I do not see why the Koreans cannot do the same for our disputed island and its vicinity. I urge the Koreans to be pragmatic and look toward our future cooperation. We have many things we can do together.
KH: In the long-term should China be seen as a partner or competitor? It appears Seoul and Tokyo have slightly different perspectives toward Beijing.
Nishihara: It is too early to judge whether China should be regarded as a partner or competitor in the long run. Today, China has two faces: an economic partner and a military competitor. Both Japan and South Korea have increased respective economic interdependencies with China. Through this kind of interdependency China hopefully will learn to become "a responsible stakeholder" and to live peacefully with us.
In the meantime, China`s military buildup in naval, air and space capabilities is fast and formidable. It now has started to construct an aircraft carrier. As it acquires its own global positioning system, it will be free of the U.S. global system. It appears that China`s goal is to catch up with the United States in all aspects, just as the Soviet Union attempted to do during the Cold War period. Militarily China is seeking to become a preponderant power in the Asia Pacific. We have to approach China with both optimism and caution, and we should watch carefully which of the two faces China is eventually going to choose.
South Korea appears less cautious about China`s military capabilities than Japan is. This is perhaps because South Korea and China have fought no war in modern history. Japan and South Korea have had different experiences with China.
By Henry Shinn