Testing Park’s ‘trustpolitik’

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Testing Park’s ‘trustpolitik’

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In the Washington Post last week, a well-known Asia hand wrote about security tensions in East Asia. The author, formerly the newspaper’s Beijing correspondent, argued that growing tensions between China and Japan were reaching the boiling point. The concern is not that the two states would go to war over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute, but that the deployment of vessels, airplanes and people by both sides around the islands would almost certainly result in an accidental clash, for which there are no rules of engagement or established de-escalation practices. He concludes that the U.S. has seen lots of war in Asia before, and cautions against a repeat of history.

Actually, Asia has not seen a lot of war in its history. In fact, as my colleague and friend at USC David Kang has demonstrated in his research, the frequency of war among major states in Asia since 1648 is much lower than in Europe. Moreover, Kang shows that the primary cause of war in Europe - wars over religion - was not nearly as prevalent in Asia.

However, concerns about rising Japan-China tensions are legitimate. Just last week, a Chinese naval vessel directed its fire control radar at a Japanese destroyer in the East China Sea. This is otherwise known as “painting” an enemy vessel, and it is extremely provocative because it is an act that a military takes in order to target an enemy for attack. The Japanese have been sending demarches all over Washington last week explaining in detail Chinese behavior, undoubtedly to make their case in the event that a clash occurs, and Japan needs to take some action. Where is this all headed? I wrote on Foreign Policy’s Web site at the end of 2012 of my concerns that rising nationalisms could lead to higher levels of tension than we have seen in Asia for some time.

Korea can play a unique and important role in helping to reduce tensions.

It is entirely in Korea’s interests to see an easing of tensions between its two neighbors. Koreans gain nothing from Sino-Japanese tensions (though they may take some satisfaction in seeing Tokyo squirm), and merely sitting back and watching them escalate serves no purpose.

More important, Korea can play a role that other interlocutors, like the United States, cannot. Despite the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, Washington has no desire to intervene in these Asian countries’ internecine tensions, and even if it did try to lower the temperature, Beijing would hardly find the Americans, Japan’s military ally, honest brokers. Korea, on the other hand, can credibly play the role of an honest broker. It is geographically proximate to the dispute. It has interests in good relations with both China and Japan; moreover, neither would see Seoul as wholly in the camp of the other. There is no other country in Asia, even in the world, which could play this role credibly.

Beijing and Tokyo view the new leader of Korea with a great deal of respect. Madame Park Geun-hye is a well-known entity among the political establishment in both countries. Japanese Prime Minister Abe was the first Asian leader to send a special envoy to meet with her after her election. And the Chinese were grateful that she sent a special delegation to Beijing as a symbol of a new and improved Sino-Korea relationship after the difficult relations experienced under Lee Myung-bak. To put it simply, while Abe and Xi may have difficulties with each other, both want good relations with the new ROK president.

So what can Korea do? Obviously, it cannot adjudicate a territorial dispute between its neighbors. And it cannot take sides. But sometimes when two countries get locked by the horns in a dispute where neither can afford to back down, a third party can mediate, empathize and provide a face-saving way for the two protagonists to find common ground.

First, the new Korean president can lay down a marker calling publicly for neither side to jeopardize regional peace and stability and to handle the situation with calmness. Such a statement would almost certainly win the support of others in the region, as well as outside of it, putting both Tokyo and Beijing on notice.

Second, behind these public pronouncements, quiet calls could be made to both leaders (perhaps on the occasion of congratulatory calls after her inauguration on Feb. 25) expressing the region’s desires to see the two sides de-escalate tensions.

Third, Korea could also host a trilateral meeting (perhaps somewhere serene and scenic like Jeju Island) to air differences and reduce tensions. Seoul already hosts the China-Japan-Korea Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, and therefore is well-positioned to suggest a ministers or leaders meeting. Friends of Japan (the U.S.) and China (Russia?) would wholeheartedly endorse such an initiative.

Park talked about “trustpolitik” during her campaign - that is, building regional relations and a foreign policy based on trust. What better way to exemplify this new diplomacy than for Korea to play a leadership role in reducing the current state of tensions in its neighborhood.

*The author is a professor at Georgetown University and Korea Chair at CSIS in Washington, DC. His book, “The Impossible State,” was selected by Foreign Affairs as a Best Book of 2012 on Asia and the Pacific.

by Victor Cha
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