For decades, South Korea and Japan have been the two most important allies of the United States in East Asia, and Washington has long been plagued by discord between the two countries.
South Koreans say Japan has never apologized or made amends for its brutal colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. To the Japanese, South Korea, often an untrustworthy neighbor, reneged on several promises, including wounds in treaty agreements designed to salvage history.
In recent years, the United States has found diplomatic reconciliation among its East Asian allies more urgent than ever as it seeks to mobilize like-minded partners to address common threats such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s economic and military ambitions and North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons program.
In this context, the relationship between Seoul and Tokyo began to ease. In March, the two countries began taking steps to resolve a long-festering dispute over wartime forced labor. This week, South Korea reinstated Japan as its preferred trading partner, with President Yoon Suk-yeol drawing his own attention after declaring that Japan could no longer “kneel because of our history from 100 years ago”. “
As Mr. Yin visits Washington this week for a state dinner on Wednesday and addresses Congress the next day, President Biden and other U.S. officials will discuss how to continue the momentum of détente. That’s why it’s critical to Washington’s strategy in Asia and beyond.
In a rapidly changing world, alliances matter.
The United States has attempted to persuade its Indo-Pacific allies to work more closely together by introducing a series of partnerships, such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Prosperity Framework, the four-nation “Quad” consultative body, the AUKUS security pact, the Chip 4 alliance, and partners in the Blue Pacific program.
A strong bilateral partnership between Japan and South Korea has long been on Washington’s wish list, but troubled relations have kept it out of reach.
Now both Tokyo and Seoul are pushing to align more closely with Washington as China promotes a worldview in which the United States is less powerful.
Both countries support Washington’s vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific and attended a NATO summit last summer where leaders condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and raised concerns about China’s threat to undermine the rules-based international order.
Both countries are aware that the rapidly changing geopolitical environment presents challenges that they cannot address alone. In recent years, joint maneuvers by Chinese and Russian military aircraft near South Korean and Japanese airspace have helped get that message across.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida now calls South Korea an “important neighbor with whom we should cooperate”. South Korean President Yoon Hee-yeol has urged his country to no longer view Japan as a “military aggressor of the past” but as a “partner with the same universal values”.
The trilateral relationship with South Korea and Japan “is at the heart of our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region, which is why I and other senior Department colleagues are dedicating significant time and focus to this important partnership,” said Secretary of State Anthony · Antony J. Blinken in March.
North Korea is expanding its nuclear arsenal.
The growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea have prompted Seoul and Tokyo to recognize the strategic value of trilateral cooperation with the United States. In recent months, North Korea has not only fired missiles over Japan but also threatened to launch a nuclear attack on South Korea.
South Korea has never been formally aligned with Japan and has been reluctant to cooperate militarily with Japan outside of humanitarian search and rescue missions on the high seas. But they are now expanding military cooperation, largely because of North Korea.
Last November, when the leaders of the United States, Japan and South Korea met in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, they agreed to share real-time North Korean missile warning data. The three countries have also expanded trilateral missile defense and other military exercises in recent months.
One of the steps Seoul took in March to mend relations with Tokyo was to formally restore a bilateral military intelligence-sharing agreement to help the two neighbors defend against North Korean missiles. At the height of the wartime forced labor controversy in 2019, Seoul announced plans to terminate the agreement.
Global supply chains are more fragile.
That same year, 2019, Japan imposed restrictions on the export of chemicals critical to South Korea’s semiconductor industry. Seoul filed a complaint against Tokyo at the World Trade Organization. The two countries removed each other from a white list of so-called preferential trading partners.
But Japan and South Korea in particular are moving toward better mutual support in an atmosphere where war and geopolitical tensions between the United States and China threaten global supply chains.
Last month, Tokyo and Seoul agreed to lift those export controls, and Seoul withdrew its WTO complaint. Seoul and Tokyo also agreed to launch an “economic security dialogue” to discuss cooperation on key technologies and supply chains. Mr Yoon’s government recently expressed a desire to attract Japanese companies to the $228 billion semiconductor park South Korea plans to build near Seoul by 2042.
South Korea is the world’s leading producer of memory chips, and Japan provides the tools and materials essential for chip manufacturing. Last year, Washington proposed a so-called “Chip 4 Alliance” with two allies and Taiwan to keep China out of the race for a global semiconductor supply chain.
Tensions with China over Taiwan are heating up.
Seoul, Tokyo and Washington share a strong common interest in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Security analysts worry that China could try to invade Taiwan in the same way that Russia did its all-out invasion of Ukraine. If that happens, some experts warn that North Korea could take the opportunity to launch a war on the Korean peninsula to further its territorial ambitions.
The move would open up two fronts for U.S. forces in the region at the same time.
“Should a conflict break out in the Taiwan Strait, the United States will demand various kinds of cooperation from its allies and partner countries,” Kim Han-kwon, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security Research in Seoul, wrote in a February paper. The alliance is viewed as an important regional strategic asset related to the Taiwan Strait.”
Japan and South Korea have been able to thrive economically in part because the United States provides security by maintaining a substantial military presence in both countries. Washington has also vowed to protect its allies through “extended deterrence,” pledging to use all of America’s weapons — including nuclear capabilities — in the event of conflict.
Now, the United States wants all its allies to play a greater role in regional defense.
In addition to South Korea and Japan, Washington has recently stepped up military ties with Australia, India and the Philippines to counter China’s influence in the region and strengthen its ability to defend Taiwan.