‘Asia pivot’ complexities

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‘Asia pivot’ complexities


Kim Young-ho

Will President Obama’s visit to Korea and Japan mark the beginning of the U.S. government’s “pivot to Asia,” or rebalance, policy? Until now, the pivot to Asia has been regulated to the back burner by the U.S. sequestration spending cuts, Syrian civil war and crisis in Ukraine. Fortunately, the Pentagon’s latest Quadrennial Defense Review calls for deploying 60 percent of U.S. Navy forces to the Asia-Pacific Region by 2020 and concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by 2016. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, a key figure in drafting the policy, says this month will be a decisive moment for Asia.

America’s pivot to Asia is a new policy with roots in the San Francisco Peace Treaty from the Cold War era, which was intended to support Japan as a check on the Soviet Union and China, and use Korea to strengthen Japan (Reischauer’s thesis). Consequently, Japan was no longer a war criminal state but a strategic partner of the United States.

Washington should act as a responsible third party in addressing historical issues between Korea and Japan. Similarly, the United States is directly involved in the Dokdo islets issue. In the final draft of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, America excluded Dokdo from the list of islands to be returned to Korea - despite opposition from other countries.

President Obama is to return the Royal Seal of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) when he visits Korea on Friday. It would be even more moving if he apologizes for neglecting the fact that Korea became a colony of Japan under the secret Taft-Katsura agreement. Showing that a country that acknowledges its own faults has truly advanced might be a shortcut to improved relations between Korea and Japan, if he really believes Korea is the “linchpin” of regional security.

U.S.-China relations will be a competition - and compromise - between America’s pivot to Asia and China’s new role as a major power broker, and between America’s TPP and China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). They will consider each other an “adversary,” not an “enemy.”

However, the problem is that geopolitical conflicts between Korea and China, China and Japan, China and Southeast Asia, and South and North Korea depend on military strength. The situation is similar to the geopolitical game between the West and Russia over Ukraine. Let’s look at the Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu as the Chinese call them. If the islands fall, the West Sea, the South China Sea and the East China Sea would fall, too. So Korea shares strategic interests with the United States and Japan against China. Moreover, as the U.S. defense budget gets tighter, the crisis response capacity of the U.S. forces also will decrease. In order to fill the void, Korea and Japan’s supplementary leadership is needed. That’s why President Obama constantly demands improvement in Korea-Japan relations and maintenance of the trilateral alliance among Korea, Japan and the United States.

However, the problem is not so simple. Korea has extensive economic exchanges with China, and Seoul has to be conscious of Beijing’s position. Ignoring Korea-China relations and restoration of the Korea-U.S.-Japan military alliance is shortsighted. Instead, we may want to consider a softer Korea-United States-China triangle that pursues the long-term potential of Korea-China relations. Then it can serve as a strategic axis to achieve peace and democratization in East Asia, while controlling the nuclear issue in North Korea and the militarization of Japan at the same time.

American officials and Asian specialists are misled by a conservative historical perspective of Japan and do not fully grasp the layers of history between Japan and the rest of East Asia. Naturally, their rebalancing policy is limited. At the end of last year, Washington had mixed positions over Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Yasukuni visit. If the United States focuses too much of its efforts on Japan, China will be provoked by old grudges, further pursue its military ambitions and quite possibly seek to reinforce its alliance with Russia. A skilled camel can detect the smell of water from miles away. Columbia University professor Gerald Curtis also deplores the level of “expertise” of Asian experts in Washington.

We need to pay attention to the fact that in America, the influence of peaceful industries and a financial sector that emphasize economic cooperation with China is growing far faster than that of the military-industry complex that promotes an arms buildup in Northeast Asia. The U.S. ban on exporting advanced technology to China and other Communist states has nearly been lifted. According to University of Pennsylvania Professor Arthur Waldron, those who value China over Japan are gaining influence. In the long run, they want to pursue sharing of democratic values with China. Therefore, the pivot to Asia policy is likely to pursue more complex and multilateral relationships rather than the simple structure of a Korea-U.S.-Japan triangle.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 22, Page 29

*The author is the chairman of the Korea Sustainability Investing Forum and a professor emeritus at Kyungpook National University.

By Kim Young-ho

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