The Importance of Strong Relations Between Japan and South Korea

Posted in Japan , Asia | 06-Apr-05 | Author: Erich Marquardt

South Korean protesters burn a Japanese flag at an anti-Japan protest near the Japanese embassy in Seoul April 8, 2005.

In the last month, a series of confrontations have occurred between Japan and South Korea that are threatening Japan's power and interests in East Asia. These events include Japan's expressed interest in attaining sovereignty over a series of disputed islets, its whitewashing of the historical record involving its militant past, and visits made by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the Yasukuni Shrine. Japan's increase in its military projection capabilities has also contributed to South Korea's sense of concern.

These confrontations, in addition to Japan's military buildup, can be attributed to the country's growing nationalism. As the memory of World War II fades, Japanese society is becoming more nationalistic, resulting in Tokyo pushing for an increased military role in the world. Tokyo's nationalistic actions have concerned many of its allies in East Asia, most notably South Korea which is now in a verbal spat with Japan over the preceding concerns.

One of the important reasons behind Japan's military buildup involves China's strengthening position in Asia. As Beijing grows in power and modernizes its military, Tokyo understands this will weaken Japan's own position in East Asia. Japan, which is already isolated politically and geographically in Asia, is watching this change to the power balance with concern. While Japanese leaders are correct in recognizing that the Japanese military will need to become more powerful in light of changes in the regional balance of power, these leaders also need to recognize how important it is to retain strategic allies in East Asia, especially South Korea.

The Present Debate

The catalyst to the present souring of relations occurred on February 22, when Japan's Shimane Prefecture Council approved a provincial bill that established "Takeshima Day." Takeshima is Japan's term for a chain of islets between South Korea and Japan that are contested by both Seoul and Tokyo; in Korea, the islands are called Dokdo, or Tokdo. In 1905, the islets were declared by the Shimane Prefecture to be part of its territory; nevertheless, the islands have been controlled by South Korea for 50 years. While the islets are uninhabited, they are surrounded by rich fishing grounds.

The Shimane Prefecture's decision to declare "Takeshima Day" sparked angry protests in South Korea. The February 23 statement by Takano Toshiyuki, Japan's ambassador to Seoul, declaring that Tokyo retains sovereignty over the islets did not help the matter. Furthermore, the decision follows a series of other actions by Japan that has concerned its regional neighbors. For instance, Japan's educational history books distort its wartime history and refuse to provide an accurate account of the country's expansionist and militant past; the latest controversy is over a junior high school history textbook. Additionally, the country's top political leaders -- including Koizumi -- continue to visit the Yasukuni Shrine; the shrine, which honors approximately 2.5 million Japanese who died in wars between 1853 and 1945, also honors more than 1000 World War II war criminals, among them 14 Class A war criminals.

Tokyo's nationalist actions prompted South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun to warn on March 23, "Now, the South Korean government has no choice but to sternly deal with Japan's attempt to justify its history of aggression and colonialism and revive regional hegemony." Roh cautioned, "there could be a hard diplomatic war … that may reduce exchanges in various sectors and cause economic difficulty. But we do not have to worry much about it … we are determined to take the hardship on our shoulders if we really have to." Since December 2003, the two countries had been working on a free trade agreement. While the talks were derailed due to disagreement over how far Tokyo should go to reduce and remove import tariffs on agricultural products, Japan's declaration of Takeshima Day escalated the matter further. "We are considering starting the [free trade] talks when the political situation calms down," explained Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura.

The increasing strength of the Japanese military has also prompted concern in East Asia. Japan, due to its expansionist and militant actions before and during World War II, was barred from rebuilding its military in any significant manner. For instance, Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution states that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained." However, as the memory of World War II fades further into history, both Japan and its strongest ally, the United States, have come to agree that Article 9 may be impractical and that Japan should become a "normal" country again.

Indeed, Japan's International Peace Cooperation Law, enacted in 1992, permits it to send troops to participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations. The U.S. intervention in Iraq, for example, is utilizing Japan's Self Defense Forces. As stated by Lo Fu-chen, who was Taiwan's envoy to Japan from 2000 to 2004, "When I was the representative to Japan, the Bush administration sent an official to Japan discussing the amendment of Article 9. The war ended 60 years ago and the U.S. wanted Japan to become a normal country."

It appears that Tokyo is slowly working toward this objective by strengthening and increasing the status of the Japanese military. On March 21, Koizumi told a crowd of graduates at the National Defense Academy, "With the great challenges posed by new threats such as terrorism and ballistic missiles, we must improve our defense capabilities to respond efficiently to situations." Tokyo has increased its military budgets, has assisted in peacekeeping operations in locations as distant as Iraq, has agreed to join Washington's missile defense program, and has publicly recognized that it will work to combat threats to its power.

For instance, in December 2004, Tokyo released a 10-year defense program that openly labels China as a potential threat to Japanese interests. Tokyo has spoken out against the European Union resuming the arms trade with China, has joined the United States in calling the Taiwan Strait a "common strategic concern," has agreed to a missile defense program that could possibly be used one day to weaken China's military might, and has warned that Japan will use its Coast Guard to take control of the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands -- the islands were formally claimed by Japan in 1895, but are contested by China, Taiwan and Japan.

Deteriorating Relations with South Korea

Thus far, Japan's nationalism has had the most tangible effect on South Korea. Japan's deteriorating relations with South Korea are an unsettling development for Tokyo. Japan's island status, its wartime history and its firm relations with the United States have kept it isolated from its Asian neighbors. Since the fall of the Japanese empire at the conclusion of World War II, the United States has utilized Japan as its bridgehead to East Asia. Washington garrisons its military forces in Japan, and has involved itself in Asian conflicts and affairs in order to keep Japan from falling out of the U.S. sphere of influence and into a Chinese one. The loss of Japan for the United States would count as a major setback for U.S. influence in Asia and for U.S. interests as a whole.

Because of these factors, Japan has found itself politically isolated in East Asia. Its relations with the United States and Australia presently secure its influential position; however, Japan now faces the growth of China, which is rapidly modernizing its economy and military. China's population of 1.3 billion people dwarfs Japan's 128 million. China had a trade volume in 2004 of $1.2 trillion, third in the world behind the United States and Germany. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency predicts that, according to Beijing's current progression, China's G.D.P. will equal Great Britain in 2005, Germany in 2009, Japan in 2017, and the United States in 2042.

China's size as a country means that if Beijing is able to continue its stable growth as a power, it should supplant Japan's influence in East Asia and force Japan to recognize a debilitating shift in the balance of power. For the United States, it will mean that Japan will be forced to accommodate with China, thus diminishing Washington's influence in East Asia and marking a failure for the Bush administration's current National Security Strategy which argues that in order to contain China, the U.S. "must build and maintain our defenses beyond challenge."

Plus, there is no guarantee that the United States will remain completely committed to Japan's defense. The difficulty that U.S. forces have encountered in eliminating the insurgency in Iraq has made it clear that interventions are costly and need to be avoided when possible. Former U.S. assistant secretary of defense under the Reagan administration Lawrence Korb, for example, recently cautioned, "You've got about another year. If you don't cut back in Iraq, your all-volunteer Army and Marine Corps are going to be in trouble." While it is still assumed that the United States will come to Japan's aid in case of a conflict, there is no guarantee that this will be the case a decade or two in the future. This explains why Japan has been increasing the strength of its military and reviving nationalist sentiment necessary to move toward this end.

These power realities mean that Japan must make every effort to establish good relations with other influential Asian states; in conjunction with these states, Tokyo will be able to increase its regional power and potentially be able to limit China's growing regional influence. South Korea is one of these influential states, and it also shares good relations with the United States and houses U.S. troops dating back to the 1950-1953 Korean War. The difficulty for Japan is that its growing nationalism -- necessary for the boosting of its military potential -- infuriates South Koreans, who remember Japan's wartime atrocities on the Korean Peninsula before and during World War II.

Tokyo must be wary of enflaming the region. Already, South Korean politicians are creating an alliance that aims to combat increased Japanese influence in the region and the globe. The alliance, currently dubbed the Lawmakers' Conference for Peace in Asia, plans to prevent Japan from acquiring a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council; it will work to do this by building alliances with organizations in other Asian states that also are concerned with Japan's growing power. The group has apparently made inroads with Beijing. The first meeting of the alliance is scheduled for August. In the words of Representative Kang Chang-il of the Uri Party, who is part of the conference, "We are concerned that a recent series of provocative acts from Japan might be a prelude to the revival of militarism."

If Japan degrades its relationship with South Korea, it risks Seoul improving its relations with Beijing at the expense of Tokyo and Washington. Seoul is facing a population growing more distant from the United States and is seeking to pursue a more independent foreign policy in Asia. Seoul and Beijing are improving their relations. Since Seoul still relies on U.S. military support, it would be an avoidable setback for Japan to alienate South Korea enough for it to move further away from the Japan-U.S. orbit and more toward the Chinese one.

Further, the region as a whole has not reacted well to Japan's increase in military power. While Japanese Defense Agency Director Yoshinori Ono argued that the Japanese Self Defense Forces' "activities inside and outside Japan are welcomed by the public and are giving a positive impression," and that "the 'soft power' arouses empathy from the local people of the various countries," many of Japan's neighbors do not agree.

For instance, on March 22, Koizumi stated that the Asian countries situated on the sea lane that passes through the Malacca Strait should create an anti-piracy cooperative framework to increase stability in the Strait. The Strait of Malacca is a key sea lane for the transport of goods as it links together the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Twenty-five percent of world trade passes through the Strait, and, more critically for Tokyo, some 80 percent of Japan's oil is brought through the Strait. The International Maritime Bureau ranks the Strait as the second hardest hit piracy hotspot on the globe. Koizumi argued that as part of this framework, Japan would send its Coast Guard along with aircraft to patrol the Strait in order to combat piracy. Koizumi's proposal was rejected by both Indonesia and Malaysia, the two states that are situated along the Strait. This rejection highlights how there is little interest in Japan increasing its regional military role.


China has reacted quickly to capitalize on South Korea's current dissatisfaction with Japan. Beijing aims to limit U.S. influence in East Asia, and that requires pulling Asia's pivotal states into the Chinese orbit. Beijing, which has publicly labeled its present strategy the "peaceful rise" policy, is assuring that it is not interested in regional expansion and that it wants simply to increase its trade and economic clout with Asia -- its conflict with Taiwan notwithstanding.

Beijing's massive economic growth has worked to foster positive relations with many Asian states, and it is this with which both Japan and the United States need to be most concerned. If states such as South Korea gravitate increasingly toward China, it will result in a major shift in power in Asia. This is why it is important for Japan, which, under its current policies, stands to lose by such a power shift, to minimize avoidable conflicts with the states it is trying to woo in East Asia, most notably South Korea.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the United States will always stand so closely by Japan's side. As China grows in military strength, Washington may come to accept its increased role in the region. Under its current policies, this would not bode well for Japan as it would stand to lose power in the region and have a weakened capability to achieve its interests. Therefore, while this potential development induces Japan to increase the strength of its military, it must do so with the acceptance of East Asia's influential states; failure to earn their acceptance may leave Japan increasingly isolated in East Asia with few foreign policy options at its disposal.

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of [email protected]. All comments should be directed to [email protected].