Dance with the devil
The United States and Japan revised the Guidelines for the U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation for the first time in 18 years, escalating tensions in Northeast Asia to a new level. It was like summoning the specter of the Cold War. The new guidelines broadened the operational scope of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces from the “situations in areas surrounding Japan” to global missions. It widely opened the path to realizing Shinzo Abe’s dream of making a “war-capable Japan.”
In his interview with the Asahi Shimbun, Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear did not hide the U.S.’s intentions and provided an honest explanation.
“The rebalance is a whole of government effort to maximize U.S. influence in the region, given the tremendous changes that are taking place in East Asia,” he said. “We have seen India’s wealth and influence increase, its foreign policy focus shift east, to the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. We have seen the Southeast Asian countries rise in wealth and influence. And we have seen the strategic importance of the South China Sea increase over the last few years. …?All of these changes led us to reconsider our overall approach to the region, and that is why we formulated the rebalance.”
In East Asia, what country, other than China, is threatening the security interests of the United States? If Shear were more candid, he would have said the new guidelines were to counter the challenge of China to rule the Pacific together by dividing it into the eastern and western waters. An action causes a reaction and the reaction triggers another action. There is no doubt that the new guidelines, which stressed the unity between the U.S. military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, will provoke China more than anyone.
How will China react if Korea joins the U.S.-Japan alliance and a trilateral security cooperation regime is built - just like Washington hopes? Although China’s relationship with North Korea has been strained - and though China and Russia have maintained a half-baked strategic partnership - concerns are high that the confrontational structure of South Korea-U.S.-Japan versus North Korea-China-Russia will likely emerge.
It is understandable that the United States is dejected by China’s aggressive initiatives like the pursuit of the new Silk Road policy and the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Regardless, outsourcing such a high level of security to Japan clearly shows a lack of considerations for the other allies of the United States and its friends in Asia.
We should have read the writing on the wall. Before Abe’s April 29 speech at the joint session of U.S. Congress, senior officials of the Obama administration issued a series of remarks critical of Korea, siding with Japan on the Korea-Japan conflict over history in particular. U.S. President Barack Obama also offered heartwarming hospitality to Abe during his visit to Washington.
Korea hired a lobbying firm and tried its best to include the word “apology” for the “comfort women” enslaved by the Japanese Army in World War II in Abe’s address at Congress. But it faced an uphill battle against Japan’s Sasakawa Peace Foundation, which has a $500 million lobbying budget.
Abe is in high spirits about winning the new guidelines for security and the address at Congress for diplomacy. But that is Abe’s business, and there is no reason for us to be jealous. The problem is that America ended up encouraging his reckless run on historical revisionism. That is why the government faced rebukes that Korea’s diplomacy toward the United States has failed.
At the joint JoongAng Ilbo-Center for Strategic and International Studies forum in Seoul on May 5, several Asia experts said Korea failed to win U.S. support because it did not lobby “for Korea” but “against Japan.” It is unclear how many Americans were uncomfortable with Korea’s strategy. But it must seriously examine its diplomacy if a group of people, who have a strong influence in Washington’s policy towards Korea, share such views. They believe that no such word as “remorse” will be included in Abe’s address scheduled for our Liberation Day on Aug. 15.
Without the Japanese government’s apology, how will the Park Geun-hye administration normalize Seoul-Tokyo relations? It is particularly difficult when the popularity of the president has plunged due to the Sewol ferry tragedy, a series of botched appointments for prime minister and the Sung Wan-jong payoff scandal involving a countless number of political bigwigs and former and current senior government officials.
Despite the U.S. government’s denial, America is clearly tilting toward Japan. Uncle Sam will increase its pressure on Seoul to normalize its relations with Tokyo and join the security cooperation system. That was forewarned when top U.S. officials were unanimously critical of Korea.
President Park must make a bold decision. If she continues to avoid Japan - buried by the comfort women and history issues - Korea will eventually be isolated even from the United States. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping shook hands with Abe and talked with a smile on the sidelines of the Asia-Africa summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, last month.
Park must put the comfort women and history issues on a separate track and meet with Abe to talk about normalizing relations in security, economy and cultural fields.
Anti-Korea sentiment in Japan has reached a peak. No matter how strongly we condemn Abe’s historical revisionism and military adventurism, nothing will change. Soon, a Korea-China-Japan summit will take place and it could serve as an opportunity for a breakthrough in the deadlocked Korea-Japan ties.
Abe, who persistently refuses to offer an apology to the comfort women, is a person with a moral problem. But for our country’s interest, it is necessary to dance with the devil. Park must pursue a pragmatic diplomacy toward Abe, who is surely guaranteed to prolong his premiership until 2020.
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie