Recent developments in South Korea-Japan relations show signs of a zero-sum game: Japan's gain will be South Korea's loss. Less than an hour before a scheduled signing ceremony of a landmark military agreement with Japan on June 29, Seoul called off the event.
Washington has been working hard in urging Seoul and Tokyo to put their historical hostilities behind them and strengthen their bilateral cooperation, in order to forge a Japan-ROK-U.S. trilateral military alliance as part of an overall strategy to contain China and North Korea.
In recent years, the U.S. has strengthened its security ties with Australia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. To fill the missing link, what Washington has long wanted is a close alliance between Japan and South Korea, America's two strongest allies in the region, to enhance greater cooperation among America's allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific.
The proposed bilateral treaty, the General Security of Military Information Agreement, would have been the first military agreement between Seoul and Tokyo since the end of World War II. It will provide a legal framework for South Korean and Japanese militaries to share and manage military intelligence. They will be able to share intelligence not only on North Korean troops, nuclear weapons and missiles, but also on China's growing military power and its naval movements.
"Japan and the U.S. have shared military intelligence since they signed an information sharing pact, but the U.S. had been frustrated since no such accord exists between Korea and Japan. As soon as the South Korean Cabinet approved the agreement on June 27, the U.S. State Department issued a statement welcoming the decision," Seoul's English Chosun Daily reports, "government officials here insist the need to share military intelligence is greater than ever in view of North Korea's nuclear and missile threats."
The real reason to push ahead with a ROK-Japan military agreement, however, is Washington's plan to create a closer three-way alliance to keep China in check. "Washington has proposed joint military drills for Korea, the U.S. and Japan for years," says Lee Chi-Dong of South Korea's Yonhap News, "and the information sharing agreement is something the U.S. has been asking for in the same context. The plans have strategic significance vis-a-vis China's growing military might."
The announcement to sign the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan, however, has "set off a political firestorm in South Korea," writes Choe Sang-Hun of New York Times, "where resentment of Japan's early 20th century colonization remains entrenched and any sign of Japan's growing military role is met with deep suspicion. The political opposition and civic groups in South Korea warned that the new military cooperation deal between Japan and South Korea would only encourage Japan's militaristic ambition."
Viewed from a zero-sum perspective, many South Koreans remain wary of Japan's intent on building up its military power and its possible return to military imperialism. And the opposition parties in South Korea have accused President Lee Myung-Bak of ignoring popular anti-Japanese sentiments in pressing ahead with the treaty. "When the Lee Myung-Bak government started out, it was pro-American to the bone, and as it nears the end of its term, it is proving pro-Japanese to the bone," declared Park Yong-Jin, spokesman for South Korea's opposition Democratic United Party.
While South Korea and Japan enjoy thriving economic ties and growing cultural exchanges, the two remain locked in disputes over the ownership of a set of small islets (Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese) in Japan Sea and over Tokyo's rejection of talks on compensating "comfort women," Korean women the Japanese military forced into sexual slavery during World War II.
The June 29 incident has become a major setback for the strengthening of the U.S.-led alliance in the Asia-Pacific region. As Japanese journalist Kosuke Takahashi puts it, "Sixty-seven years after the end of World War II, history is once again beginning to produce heightened diplomatic tensions between Japan and South Korea.
Escalating tensions between Tokyo and Seoul will only harm the U.S.-led united front against China's naval expansion and North Korea's nuclear and missile ambitions."
While there are some historical disputes, the South Korea-Japan relationship is not a zero-sum game.
A constructive South Korean-Japanese partnership is essential for stronger regional cooperation at a time of Chinese military expansion and North Korean nuclear adventurism. In this crucial bilateral relationship, Japan needs to take initiative to find ways to address the two disputed issues in a way to foster a strategic alliance with South Korea.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.