[OVERSEAS VIEW]Korea’s best defense: stronger U.S. ties

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[OVERSEAS VIEW]Korea’s best defense: stronger U.S. ties

The agreement earlier this month to strengthen the U.S.-Japan security alliance, announced at the latest “Two Plus Two” meeting of the American secretaries of state and defense and their Japanese counterparts, was big news in South Korea, but barely elicited any coverage in the international media. Sensationalist coverage by the Korean media about incremental achievements in the U.S.-Japan security relationship reflect underlying concerns about the perceived weakening of the U.S.-Korea alliance.
Fifteen years ago the government of Japan paid $13 billion to support the first Persian Gulf War, but failed to make a military contribution.
The North Korean nuclear crisis during the 1990s revealed the inability to effectively coordinate U.S. and Japanese responses even on scenarios related to the defense of Japan. Adrift after the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. president Bill Clinton and Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1996 reaffirmed the direction and purpose of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Prior to the 2000 U.S. presidential elections, Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye led a bipartisan study group that recommended a further strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance and heralded Japan’s abandonment of self-imposed limits on “collective defense” and a more active global partnership, challenging Japan to be the “UK of Asia.” These recommendations became the core of the Bush administration’s policy toward Japan.
Post-9/11, Japan’s leadership has moved toward accepting that challenge, consistently over-performing American expectations by providing refueling for the U.S. military in Afghanistan and dispatching Japan’s self-defense forces to implement reconstruction projects in Iraq. (In contrast, some argue that the United States has underappreciated the South Korean troop dispatch to Iraq.)
Some South Koreans have argued that a strengthened U.S.-Japan alliance in tandem with weakening U.S.-Korea relations enabled Japan to press a more aggressive claim to Dokdo.
But despite President Roh’s speech calling Japan’s Dokdo territorial claim another manifestation of the history between South Korea and Japan, it is highly implausible the United States would take sides in a dispute between two allies. But Americans should work harder to reduce such tensions by holding more regular trilateral dialogues on these issues.
South Koreans increasingly offer private warnings to Americans (and even emotional outpourings in official settings) not to forget that Japan’s imperial history also touched the United States.
A small group of Japanese right-wing historical revisionists still see the war’s outcome and the San Francisco treaty following World War II as “victor’s justice” in a conflict between two types of imperialism ― a version of history endorsed by the Yushukan museum at Yasukuni Shrine.
Congressman Henry Hyde has made several statements objecting to historical interpretations that challenge the validity of the San Francisco Treaty. In fact, an expanded U.S.-Japan global partnership in support of democratic values contradicts such historical interpretations, serving as proof that Japan accepted the ideological victory of democracy over fascism after World War II.
Certainly, balance-of-power considerations to counter China’s rise are one of the many motivations for a strengthened U.S.-Japan partnership in Asia. But these considerations are unlikely to drive a “new cold war” containment strategy in Asia, given the economic interdependence of China with both Japan and the United States. Despite some South Korean “balancing” desires for greater independence from the United States, the best South Korean prospects for effectively influencing Korea’s regional context or U.S. policy toward Asia remain in the context of a strong U.S.-South Korean alliance.
However, America would not be able to ignore the danger posed to U.S. interests by a Japanese partner that fails to get along with its Asian neighbors.
An isolated Japan does not serve American interests. The prospect of being unnecessarily entrapped in conflicts deriving from Japanese regional aggressiveness is both unappealing and probably unlikely.
But American public pressure on Japan to influence its handling of history issues is also likely to be counterproductive. Rather, an enhanced security partnership with the United States presumably imposes a framework for Japan’s domestic political debate that carries its own structural constraints. Those constraints are already apparent in the race to determine Prime Minister Koizumi’s successor.
It is understandable that South Koreans may be perplexed by a stronger U.S.-Japan alliance.
Americans should not dismiss Korean fears about an expanded U.S.-Japan alliance, uncertainty over the future of the U.S.-Korea relationship, and prospects for renewed regional rivalries in Northeast Asia. But South Koreans surely must recognize that a weak or failing U.S.-Japan security alliance would have even more unappealing implications for South Korea’s core national interests than a solid U.S.-Japan partnership.

* The writer, a senior associate with The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS, is currently a Pantech Fellow at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC). .

by Scott Snyder
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