Our new Cold WarIn a recent report titled “Japan-U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress,” the Congressional Research Service worried that Japan’s right-wing prime minister’s attitude about past aggressions and other historical issues could end up damaging U.S. interests. It said, “Comments and actions on controversial historical issues by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet have raised concern that Tokyo could upset regional relations in ways that hurt U.S. interests.”
Washington’s conflicted views about Tokyo were on display at the recent Security Consultative Meeting among foreign and defense ministers of Japan and the United States in Tokyo. In a joint statement after the two-plus-two meeting, Tokyo received an endorsement from Washington for its moves to lift a self-imposed ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense. However, it did not get Washington’s nod over authority for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to possess the capability to attack enemy missile bases. The United States did not agree to the Japanese military having such a first-strike capability. The visiting U.S. bigwigs, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, indicated that Tokyo won’t get all it has been asking for. Kerry and Hagel also visited a national cemetery in Tokyo that contained the remains of Japanese soldiers and civilians killed during World War II that were never claimed by family members. They carefully chose their spot to pay respects to avoid the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors some of Japan’s Class-A war criminals.
The U.S. needs to strengthen its alliance with Japan. One of the major reasons is to save military costs amid a sharp scale-down in defense spending because of America’s fiscal woes. Michael Green, who served as a special assistant to former President George W. Bush for national security affairs and as a senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, pointed out that Japan’s per capita defense budget is among the smallest in the world, tantamount to the levels of small Caribbean nations like Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and Bermuda, while publicly supporting Japan’s right to collective self-defense in December last year.
The U.S. is often blamed for Japan’s denial of its aggressive past and its outrageous lack of shame for its past wrongdoings. After World War II, the United States - and its viceroy in Japan, Douglas MacArthur - reasoned that it was better to have an emperor seated as a deity-like figurehead to govern the defeated Japan rather than to toss him into prison, Emperor Hirohito was never questioned or tried in an international tribunal after the war. In a way, Japan was given a special pardon for the sins performed in the name of the emperor and lost the opportunity to seek atonement for its invasions and start anew, as Germany did.
The kind of Cold War confrontation that long disappeared in 20th century Europe resurfaced in Northeast Asia in the 21st century with the United States strengthening its front with Japan to contain the rising might of China. That reminds us of the same chemistry with which Great Britain and Japan attempted to fend off an expansion-minded Russia in 1902. The British even funded Japan in its war with Russia in 1904. Emboldened by such power, Japan forced the Joseon court to sign the Eulsa Treaty to make Korea a protectorate of the Empire of Japan in the following year.
The United States led the Washington Naval Conference in 1921-22 to control traffic among naval powers - the United States, Japan, China, France, Britain, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Portugal - in their imperialist and expansionist race by drawing up a multilateral cooperative framework. It was the first disarmament conference in history and the only recordable accomplishment of U.S. President Warren G. Harding. The U.S. demanded Britain break ties with Japan by arguing that Russia’s threat was over while Japanese encroachment into Chinese territories was increasing. Now, the United States is reinforcing its alliance with Japan in order to contain China. Publicly, their strengthened military ties are said to be aimed at deterring a nuclear-armed North Korea. But everyone knows it’s all about China.
Does China deserve the same treatment the Soviet Union received from the United States during the Cold War? China and the United States may compete in Asia for military and security reasons, but they depend on one another economically. China is propping up the U.S. government as the biggest buyer of U.S. Treasuries. American state governors and mayors line up to meet bigwigs in Beijing in hopes of drawing investment from cash-rich China. What can the United States gain by building a new Cold War, rearming Japan and making China a common enemy?
If the alliance is based on cooperation, it would be wiser to choose a multilateral peace framework that includes Russia, Korea and other Asian countries instead of a two-power alliance. The integrated peace and cooperation initiative for Northeast Asia proposed by President Park Geun-hye is the more reasonable and realistic option. South Korea has little room to complain, having prospered under the security protection of the United States, technology and funding from Japan and now relying economically on exports to China.
To have a greater say in the matter, South Korea must improve ties with North Korea. The nuclear weapons built by North Korea are a justified cause for a new security structure. The United States and Japan began to discuss reinforcing Japan’s military after North Korea’s nuclear threat emerged in 1993. If the two Koreas get on better, regional tensions will ease, reducing South Korea’s military reliance on America. Japan would also lose grounds for military re-strengthening.
No progress will be made under the tit-for-tat nature of the current inter-Korean relationship. Instead of immediate emotional responses, South Korea needs to look at the bigger picture in drawing up its policies on the North. The United States is closely watching movements in South Korea and China. Europe worked out an exit from the debilitating Cold War through a multilateral peace framework in last century. Asia can do the same. We must be bold and resolute in initiating the cause and changing the security climate in Northeast Asia.
*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Ha-kyung