Pacific Dialogue
A precarious pact
By Liang Xiao  ·  2023-08-28  ·   Source: NO.35 AUGUST 31, 2023

On August 18, Camp David, the American presidential country retreat in the state of Maryland, welcomed two dignitaries from East Asia: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Yoon Suk-yeol. U.S. President Joe Biden hoped to make Japan and the ROK closer partners while "institutionalizing" the U.S.-Japan-ROK alliance, meaning that cooperation between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul can be sustained no matter how the governments or domestic politics of the three countries change.

The prospects for this new trilateral mechanism, however, remain to be seen. In a scientific way, when the centripetal force cannot resist the centrifugal force, an alliance tends to fall apart.

Although both countries are important allies of the U.S. in Asia, the hostility between the ROK and Japan has long hindered the integration of American alliance forces.

Due to historical grievances and ongoing disputes, Japan and the ROK have been in constant conflict for a long time.

In 1910, the Korean Peninsula officially became Japan's colony. As many as 7.8 million Koreans were conscripted as forced labor or soldiers during Japan's imperial expansion before and during World War II, according to ROK estimates. They toiled in mines and munitions factories across Asia and fought alongside Japanese troops. More than 100,000 Korean women were sent to military-run brothels to serve as "comfort women"—a euphemism for women who provided sexual services to Japanese Imperial Army troops from 1932 to 1945 and who generally lived under conditions of sexual slavery. The Korean Peninsula has not forgotten this history of humiliation.

Then there's the pending territorial dispute between Japan and the ROK over a small group of islands that the Korean side calls Dokdo and the Japanese call Takeshima. And Japan's recent insistence on dumping radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the Pacific Ocean, despite strong opposition from neighboring countries, hasn't helped matters either, triggering a new round of Korean discontent with Japan.

The turning point came in May 2022, when the ROK's foreign policy underwent a drastic shift with the arrival of the Yoon administration. While seeking to further deepen the ROK-U.S. alliance, Yoon also actively sought to improve relations with Japan. Earlier this year, Seoul announced a plan to resolve a long-running dispute on compensating people who were forced to work in Japanese factories and mines during World War II. Unveiling the plan in March, ROK Foreign Minister Park Jin said the former workers, the surviving of whom are now in their 90s, will be compensated through a public foundation funded by private companies rather than by the Japanese firms involved in the forced labor. The plan was met with immediate protests in the ROK but hailed as "historic" by the U.S.

Obviously, the ROK's unilateral compromise is the main reason for the improvement in ROK-Japan relations, on which Yoon bets on his political life by betraying the nation's history and people. And the negative rating of the Yoon administration had mounted to 61.2 percent as of mid-August, according to a survey conducted by Realmeter, a polling agency based in the ROK.

But the real purpose of the U.S. hosting the Camp David gathering may have been to push Japan and the ROK, both hesitant to confront China head-on, to the forefront and make them a key part of building a tighter Asian network against China. And Japan and the ROK each have their own considerations for going along with this.

Japan may want to seize the opportunity to regain its status as a normal state since its unconditional surrender in World War II in 1945, including the normalization of the military and the lifting of the ban on collective self-defense; while the ROK may hope to strengthen security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan to achieve a strategic balance in light of its northern neighbor's rapid development of military science and technology. Either way, confronting China does not appear to be a priority for either Japan or the ROK.

China sees the Biden administration's latest initiative as yet another violation of the American commitment not to revive alliances against China. "We urge the relevant countries not to go against the trend of the times, to stop repeating bloc confrontation elsewhere in this region and to stop pursuing selfish gains at the expense of other countries' strategic and security interests and the wellbeing of the people in the Asia-Pacific region," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a regular press briefing on August 21.

The Americans may not realize how unwise it is to form this precarious pact. It is difficult for the ROK to form an unbreakable alliance with the Japanese. And it is impossible for China to allow a possible revival of Japanese militarism. 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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