[VIEWPOINT]History dispute threatens peaceDespite efforts during last month’s summit between President Roh and President Bush in Washington to speak in “one voice” about the health of the alliance and to improve policy coordination towards North Korea, the summit also saw the emergence of a potentially serious new area of divergence between American and South Korean allies: the role and future of Japan.
South Korean criticisms of Japan are particularly sensitive for the Bush administration in view of the perception in Washington that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been one of America’s most faithful and consistent supporters following the Sept. 11 attacks, providing logistical support in Afghanistan and sending Japan’s Self Defense Forces to Iraq. But where Washington perceives loyalty and a Japan that is stepping up to the plate as a partner in achieving global stability, Seoul perceives a rightward shift in Japanese politics and the prospect of Japan’s renewed remilitarization.
The emergence of Korean and Chinese tensions with Japan over Japan’s textbooks, renewed tensions over the disputed Dokdo islands, and Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are background issues that have recently pushed hot buttons in Seoul and Beijing, but they have barely registered as dire matters for American policymakers focused on Japan’s near-term strategic cooperation in the global war on terrorism and the longer-term need to balance a rising China.
An indication of Washington’s sensitivity to the South Korean critique of a strong U.S.-Japan alliance is the reaction to President Roh’s “balancer” comments and subsequent explanations. American objections centered less on criticisms of the idea that South Korea might play a constructive role in mitigating Sino-Japanese tensions than that the concept appeared to place South Korea in a neutral, equidistant position vis-a-vis China and Japan, despite the fact that both South Korea and Japan are important allies of the United States.
For its part, South Korean sensitivities were revealed in the country’s thin-skinned reaction to an alleged comment by Japan’s Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi that Washington was willing to share some sensitive intelligence with Japan but not with South Korea.
At this stage, the patience of most Washington policy analysts for South Korean criticism of Japan is quite limited. If South Korean leaders want to make a case against Japan, it should be an even-handed, unemotional case built on logic that appeals to American interests rather than one that argues that history will inevitably repeat itself.
That being said, the United States has a powerful interest in encouraging the management of differences in East Asia, especially between its Japanese and South Korean allies. Close relations between and among the United States and its alliance partners are critical to the realization of our shared goals and interests. The ongoing need for effective coordination of American, Japanese and South Korean policies toward North Korea is a case in point. Equally important for this administration, Japan and South Korea share America’s democratic values, the expansion of which are necessary if a lasting and stable peace is to be secured across the East Asian region.
The shift in U.S. defense strategy embodied in the Global Posture Review (GPR) underscores the American need for a positive Japan-South Korea relationship. The GPR assumes that American forces may be called upon to respond to a variety of contingencies in the East Asian region, requiring flexibility in deployments but also requiring a regionwide view of the U.S. presence, not just the traditional perspective that managing the U.S. presence in Asia requires management of parallel bilateral alliance commitments to Japan and South Korea in isolation from each other.
From this perspective, it is in the U.S. interest for South Korea and Japan, as primary alliance partners of the United States, to work effectively with each other.
Washington policymakers should take seriously the security anxieties South Korea is expressing about Japan, even if those issues are not perceived as immediate dangers from Washington’s perspective. The controversy over Japan’s treatment of history threatens peace in the region as well as the ability of South Korea and Japan to effectively work with each other as fellow democracies and allies of the United States.
While the United States has little interest in forcing itself into the middle of South Korea-Japan disputes, it should consider playing a behind-the-scenes role that facilitates a more frank consideration of ways that Japan can deal effectively with the history issue so as to respect those soldiers who fought and died for Japan and at the same time forthrightly acknowledge Japan’s historical excesses.
Such efforts are necessary to stabilize the foundation for a more regionalized, alliance-based approach to an American security presence in the region and to lay the foundation for the consolidation and expansion of shared democratic values, transparency and expanded economic prosperity that are the prerequisite for assuring a truly stable East Asian community.
* The writer is a senior associate at The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. The comments here represent his personal views.
by Scott Snyder