A geostrategic setback for the U.S.
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
There is a sense in both Seoul and Tokyo that the Trump administration is complacent, fatalistic or passive in the face of rapidly deteriorating political ties between Japan and Korea. This impression is very wrong. Washington officials are deeply worried about the state of Japan-Korea relations.
One indication of that concern came last October when Trump’s former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster keynoted the 19th World Knowledge Forum at the Silla Hotel. McMaster’s admonition for Seoul to improve ties with Tokyo would not have happened without guidance from his former colleagues in the administration. And his message was clear.
McMaster focused most of his remarks on the challenges posed by China and North Korea. He emphasized that the United States is trying diplomacy with the North and looks for both competition and cooperation with China. But the main thrust of his commentary was on the need for the world’s leading democracies to be strategically competent if they are to have any success responding to the challenges posed by China and North Korea. Without that strategic competence, he warned, China would become even more aggressive and North Korea would never denuclearize.
By implication, McMaster was warning the Moon administration that its current approach to Japan is strategically incompetent, even if the former National Security Advisor did not put it directly in those terms. As he said, “it is past time for like-minded nations to do more and do more together” and to have “friendship and confidence.”
McMaster tried to inspire his audience to follow the example of democracy and independence icon Yu Gwan-soon, who refused to name her fellow activists even under extreme torture and died calling for Korean independence in 1920 at 17. Her values were not only independence from Japan, he stressed, but also democracy, freedom of speech and rule of law. McMaster argued that Yu Gwan-soon would not have wanted modern Korea to bear an “eternal” grudge against a democratic Japan today that is very different from the one that took her life.
The Trump administration had hoped that McMaster’s speech would receive broader attention in Korea, knowing that the Supreme Court decision was approaching in Seoul on Japanese forced labor. Since then, the Supreme Court decision came down against Japanese companies and relations with Japan have spiraled downward in precisely the way Washington feared. On Dec. 28, the Japanese government released a video showing a Korean Navy ship locking its fire-control radar on an unarmed Japanese patrol plane. Then the Korean government issued video showing that the Japanese P-8 was flying at low altitude, which the Korean Navy considered threatening, and argued that the ship had only used its search radar, which is not hostile. Meanwhile, Korean business leaders have begun avoiding regular conferences and dialogue with their Japanese counterparts for fear of a domestic political backlash, and Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials have told their U.S. counterparts that they will not be attending previously-scheduled trilateral conferences involving a mix of scholars and diplomats from Korea, Japan and the United States. This fear of engagement is happening at precisely the time when like-minded diplomats and business leaders should be engaging in more dialogue to overcome a troubled bilateral relationship.
There is broad consensus in Congress and at think tanks in the United States that we are in strategic competition with China. Bad Japan-Korea relations only reinforce the conceit in Beijing that democracies will not stick together to protect the norms and values that we all view as critical to peace and stability in Asia. Moreover, the growing divergence between Tokyo and Seoul will inevitably contribute to growing tension in the U.S.-Korea alliance and therefore serves those in Beijing who want to see the post-war alliance system in Asia break apart to make more room for Chinese hegemony in the region. Many in Washington worry that Beijing sees Seoul as an easy target compared with Japan or Australia. Coming so soon after the Chinese boycott of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) anti-missile system, the current fight with Japan will be seen as further evidence in Beijing that there are no strategic consequences for punishing Korea. When you fail to work with like-minded partners to deter a bully, you only encourage the bully.
This is not to say that the United States is looking for Korea to be a partner in “containing” China — even Japan will not do that, let alone Australia. But as McMaster urged, Korea needs to be strategically competent and avoid playing into the geopolitical game plan of Beijing and Pyongyang.
Japan is not off-the-hook. As I noted in a public conference last week with Japanese politicians and scholars in Washington at CSIS, Japanese thought leaders should continuously strive for reconciliation with Korea even if political resolution of the history issue seems elusive. Indeed, most observers would say Korea enjoys the moral high ground as the victim of Japanese imperialism. But the hard reality for the Moon government is that Seoul does not enjoy the political high ground in the current impasse with Japan. From Australia to Singapore, most governments in Asia see Japan-Korea relations deteriorating primarily because of developments within South Korea. And like the United States, many of these same governments are quietly concerned about the impact on their own security at a critical juncture in the entire region’s relations with both China and North Korea.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 18, Page 29