After U.S. President Barack Obama publicly sided with Japan over a territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing last Thursday, questions have arisen about his stance on the long-simmering spat between Seoul and Tokyo over Dokdo.
Seoul wants Washington to clarify that the allies’ mutual defense treaty applies to its easternmost islets. But experts say that the idea of the U.S. taking the side of either of its core allies regarding Dokdo is out of the question.
“It is much easier for the U.S. to take the side of Japan (in the Senkaku dispute), as Japan is its key ally, while China is not an ally,” said Kim Yeoul-soo, political science professor at Sungshin Women’s University. “But when it comes to Dokdo, things are different, even if Washington understands Seoul’s position.”
After his summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last Thursday, Obama publicly confirmed for the first time as an incumbent U.S. leader that the Senkaku Islands, which China calls Diaoyu, are subject to Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan security treaty.
“Let me reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, and Article 5 covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands,” he said, warning against any unilateral move to change the status quo.
After his remarks, calls have risen here for Washington to clarify its position over the Dokdo issue. Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said that Dokdo fell under the Korea-U.S. mutual defense treaty obligating the U.S. to defend the South if attacked.
“Our stance is that Dokdo is included in areas under South Korea’s administration, which are covered under our security treaty with the U.S.,” said ministry spokesperson Cho Tai-young.
For the U.S., maintaining the status quo is the best option ― a reason why it would continue to remain neutral over Dokdo and refuse to step into the fray, analysts said.
“As the U.S. hopes to strengthen trilateral security cooperation with Japan and South Korea, it does not want to see the Seoul-Tokyo ties further deteriorate. Thus, Washington would inevitably seek to maintain the status quo (on the issue),” said Park Ihn-hwi, international politics professor at Ewha Womans University.
“Unlike the Dokdo issue, the dispute over Senkaku Islands is far more intense, and could likely escalate into military clashes ― part of the reason (why the U.S. stressed its security commitment to Japan).”
Some analysts argued that Obama’s decision to back Japan over the maritime dispute underscores how Washington values Japan’s strategic role in countering China’s increasing assertiveness.
While pushing ahead with its “rebalancing” policy to deepen diplomatic and military engagement in the Asia-Pacific, Washington, faced with military budget challenges, has encouraged Tokyo to bolster its security role in the region.
In this respect, Washington has welcomed Tokyo’s pursuit of collective self-defense, the use of force to respond to an attack on an ally, the establishment of the national security council and an increase in its defense spending.
“In America’s policy toward Asia, Japan apparently takes a much greater portion than South Korea given its economic might and military technologies, including one to build the crucial missile defense system, and other factors,” said Park Hwee-rhak, political science professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.
Japan is also a crucial partner in keeping China in check from the U.S. perspective, whereas South Korea remains reluctant to take any steps to undermine ties with China, its crucial partner in trade, tourism and efforts to pressure Pyongyang to denuclearize.
Dokdo has long been a thorny issue between Seoul and Tokyo, which has impeded the neighbors’ practical cooperation in areas including security.
Japan incorporated the islets as part of its territory in 1905 before colonizing the entire peninsula. Korea has been in effective control of them with a small coast guard unit posted there since its liberation in 1945.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com