The Korea Herald


Upgraded U.S.-Japan ties pose dilemma for Seoul

Washington, Tokyo revise bilateral defense cooperation guidelines

By Korea Herald

Published : April 27, 2015 - 20:18

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The strengthening U.S.-Japan alliance is posing a strategic dilemma for South Korea as its relations with Tokyo show no signs of improving, while the need for security cooperation over North Korea’s military threats rises.

Capitalizing on the U.S. backing, Tokyo has been striving to carve out an advantageous position in the changing contours of regional security, raising calls for Seoul to move beyond the historical animosities and pursue what better serves its practical interests.

Seoul has remained reluctant to take preemptive steps to restore ties with Tokyo due to the latter’s lack of atonement for its wartime misdeeds, including the sexual enslavement of Korean women, and repeated claim to Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo.

“With the U.S.-Japan alliance getting stronger and the emerging signs of a thaw in the Sino-Japan relations, Seoul has been put in a somewhat awkward position, which calls for its more active diplomacy toward Tokyo,” said Lee Won-deog, international politics professor at Kookmin University.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in front of Kerry’s residence in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, Sunday. Abe arrived in the U.S. Sunday for a weeklong visit. (AP-Yonhap) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in front of Kerry’s residence in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, Sunday. Abe arrived in the U.S. Sunday for a weeklong visit. (AP-Yonhap)

“Fettered by the past, Seoul has seen Japan-related issues through the lens of historical experience. But it also needs to treat them from the standpoints of security and economics, meaning it needs a restrained and balanced approach.”

The efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance are expected to culminate in the revision of the allies’ defense cooperation guidelines and their agreement on a major Pacific free trade pact, which they are set to finalize during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’ trip to the U.S. this week.

Washington and Tokyo’s focus on a “forward-looking” policy is expected to raise pressure on Seoul to do more to enhance the frayed ties with Tokyo ― particularly when a nuclear-ambitious North Korea remains a grave security challenge for all three nations.

Upgraded U.S.-Japan alliance

With their shared strategic goal of maintaining the current regional order that is being reshaped by the rise of China, Washington and Tokyo have been striving to upgrade their long-standing alliance.

The revision of the allies’ 1997 defense guidelines and the bilateral agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership ― an envisioned free trade deal linking 12 Pacific-rim states ― will be the climax of their efforts to deepen and broaden the alliance, observers say.

“The U.S. and Japan are now working on removing a set of elements that hinder the evolvement of their alliance so that they can further tighten their ties to better cope with emerging challenges including those from China,” said Park Won-gon, security expert at Handong Global University.

The revision of the guidelines scheduled for Monday is likely to broaden Japan’s security role, which has been limited under the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution ― a change that the U.S. has long encouraged over the last few decades.

With the revision, the U.S.-Japan alliance is to be elevated to the level of the South Korea-U.S. alliance as both Asian allies will be able to come to the defense of the U.S. should it be under attack.

“This (Washington’s call for Tokyo’s expanded security role) has been a consistent and nonpartisan push by the U.S. government ― which is very rare ―, and carried on throughout the George W. Bush administration, and now the Obama administration,” said Balbina Hwang, former State Department adviser and diplomacy expert at American University.

“Prime Minister Abe is building on this desire and utilizing it for his own nationalist agenda, which is to strengthen his country, raise Japan’s profile and become a more ‘normal’ country.”

The revision to the guidelines has been made when the need arose to reflect new security challenges facing the alliance. First adopted in 1978 to counter Soviet threats, the guidelines were last amended in 1997 to reflect post-Cold War security threats.

According to Japanese media reports, the revised guidelines are to stipulate that the U.S. and Japan would collectively defend the set of disputed islands in the East China Sea, which is called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, should China attack the islands.

The revision is also reported to specify the allies’ security roles ― the defense of the Japanese mainland for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the counterstrike on enemy territory for U.S. troops.

To legally justify Japan’s expanded security role, namely collective self-defense ― the use of force to help its ally under attack, Tokyo altered its constitutional interpretation last July rather than pursuing the tougher process of rewriting the 1947 pacifist constitution.

It is also pushing to overhaul its local security laws to enable Japan to provide rear-area military support to the U.S. not only in the areas surrounding Japan, but also in the entire world ― a move that a financially-strained Washington welcomes.

“With Japan’s Self-Defense Forces exercising the right to collective defense and its alliance with the U.S. being globalized, Japanese troops can be dispatched to the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere in the world as per the U.S. requests,” said Kim Soung-chul, senior fellow at the local think tank Sejong Institute.

“As Abe is doing what the U.S. wants security-wise, the Japanese leader has apparently been perceived as a good partner for Washington.”

On the economic front, the U.S. and Japan are expected to reach a broad agreement over the TPP during the summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and Abe, which is scheduled to take place in Washington on Tuesday.

The agreement over the 12-nation free-trade deal that would cover a third of the world’s trade is to further enhance the bilateral relationship and help advance Obama’s core economic policy agenda. The U.S. has been leading the negotiations over the TPP, which analysts say can help counter China’s growing economic clout.

Due to high standards on intellectual property, labor rights and the environment, China has been effectively excluded from the TPP negotiations ― a reason why Beijing has pushed for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a mooted free-trade deal involving 16 nations including South Korea, China and Japan.

Strategic dilemma for Seoul

The enhanced U.S.-Japan alliance is likely to escalate pressure on Seoul to improve ties with Tokyo and the trilateral security cooperation that Washington has pushed for as a centerpiece of its rebalance to the region.

“As the U.S. and Japan are firming up their alliance, they seek to jointly keep China, Russia and North Korea in check, and for this, Washington regards Tokyo as a very important partner,” said Kim of the Sejong Institute.

“As South Korea has been seeking to tighten relations with China, there might be some public opinion in the U.S. that the U.S.-Japan alliance is strategically more invaluable than the Korea-U.S. alliance.”

Although the leaders of South Korea and the U.S. have repeatedly highlighted the strength and depth of their evolving alliance, signs of friction in the relationship have apparently been emerging, some analysts noted.

“The U.S. has agreed to a conditions-based transfer of wartime operational control, floated the idea of stationing an advanced missile defense asset here in Korea, and asked Seoul to separately deal with history and other practical issues,” said a security expert, declining to be identified.

“But Seoul appears not to have responded to that positively. So, there could be some complaints from the U.S. brewing below the surface.”

Well aware of the need for the enhanced security cooperation with Japan and the U.S., Seoul has reiterated that it would take a “two-track” approach under which it would stick to its stern stance over history, but keep cooperative ties with Tokyo in the economic and security realms.

However, the public sentiment has always gotten in the way. Anti-Japanese sentiment has been deteriorating as Tokyo has been seen attempting to whitewash or gloss over its wartime wrongdoings and stepping up sovereignty claims to Dokdo.

Some senior U.S. officials have pointed to the need for Seoul to adopt a forward-looking stance to focus on the future rather than on the past. But their efforts to foster reconciliation between the U.S. allies have been met with a strong backlash here. Critics argue the U.S. officials suggested Seoul was also to blame for strained ties with Tokyo.

Hwang of American University said that historical events should be remembered and taught, but policy focus should be on the danger in the future, not the past, and what countries can do to ensure a better future.

“If Japan, Korea and China insist on focusing primarily on the problems of history, then the future will be just as grim as the past,” she said.

“The U.S. should also not blindly pursue trilateral security (U.S.-Japan-South Korea) without acknowledging that history issues are real and important for Asians,” she added.

Tokyo’s recent moves to enhance ties with Beijing have also underscored the need for Seoul to employ a more proactive strategy to maximize its diplomatic interests in the volatile geopolitics of Northeast Asia.

Abe and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held a summit on the sidelines of the Asian African Summit, in Bandung, Indonesia, last Wednesday. Signaling a thaw, they shared the view that the two sides should be partners for each other, not a potential threat.

By Song Sang-ho (