Will South Korea-Japan Tensions Prevent A United Front Against China?

John Lee Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute
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One of the main reasons Shinzo Abe accepted House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to become the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint session of Congress is because he wants to convince Americans to embrace the need for a more proactive and assertive Japan in Asia.

This is no easy feat in a year marking the seventieth anniversary of the defeat of Imperial Japan to end World War II. Abe will likely offer sincere remorse for the past but also focus on Japan’s enormous contribution to the rebuilding of East Asia after the end of war. As the Japanese leader told a joint sitting of Australia’s Parliament in July last year, seventy years of exemplary conduct in international affairs proves his country is a changed land.

The message of not allowing the past to prevent addressing future challenges will appeal to American policymakers. There is a growing recognition that Japan is an essential ally in a troubled region.

Why the renewed interest in Japan? Despite its two decades of economic stagnation, the country remains Asia’s second largest and its most innovative economy. And there are signs that so-called ‘Abenomics’ might just jump-start the huge but moribund economy. Although known as primarily an economic power and still restricted by a Constitution imposing considerable restraints on Japanese military activities, its navy and air force are still considered the most advanced in the region after America’s.

This means that if the San Francisco security system that was forged after World War II is to survive and adapt to meet contemporary challenges — not least to collectively deter a nuclear armed North Korea and persuade China to play by international rules — the most capable allies like Japan will need to accept a larger strategic and security role.

Indeed, much of the region is in a strategic holding pattern, watching to see whether American allies will step up, and hoping they do. In addition to Australia, Japan under Abe is doing just that, which explains why there is genuine enthusiasm in Southeast Asia for Abe’s idea of a proactive Japan.

Northeast Asia is not the same. While Japan and South Korea are both American allies, the historical enmity between the two countries is deep. And it may well worsen in the seventieth anniversary of the end of war, when memories of an imperial Japan will come to the fore. Even then, other countries that suffered at the hand of the Japanese such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Australia have spent the decades after the war finding a way to eventually bury the past and embrace a Japan that became a “model international citizen” in the seven decades after the war — a phrase used by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott about Japan when he welcomed Abe to Canberra last year.

In contrast, relations between Japan and South Korea have worsened over the past decade even as Northeast Asian problems that necessitate a more proactive Japan have deepened. Washington knows that it may take many years for these two countries to improve their relations, and it would be in the U.S. interest for both to resolve their problems constructively without using history as a weapon to damage the other for domestic political gain.

This is why the revelation that Seoul has hired the Washington DC-based BGR Public Relations firm to help promote South Korea’s interpretation of wartime history and Japan’s alleged inadequate remorse for such history will not impress American officials. Seoul already overstepped when it publicly questioned the wisdom of inviting Abe to address Congress in the first place. And while seeking professional help in shaping and communicating a message is not unusual, it is another thing to do so in a foreign country in order to advance domestic political objectives.

But it is certainly many steps too far for South Korea, a democratic U.S. ally, to enlist a U.S. PR firm in an attempt to undermine a historic speech by the leader of another democratic U.S. ally — while all three are purporting to pursue a common strategic and economic agenda in Asia in the face of authoritarian resistance and subversion from China and North Korea.

If Abe’s speech does not hit the right notes, it will obviously be considered a lost opportunity for Japan. But South Korea’s activism on foreign and allied soil means that it has already scored a huge own goal.

Dr. John Lee is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC and an adjunct professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.