Archive | 9:06 pm

Aso Has No Time to Ruin Japan-ROK Relations Further

12 Jan

Michael J. Green is critical but optimistic about Japan-ROK relations, and the opening moves between ROK’s president, Lee Myung-bak, and Japan’s prime minister, Taro Aso, seem to bear him out. Green advises Aso’s government not to let nationalism interfere with national interest.

Green lays out the recent history of the troubled East Asian relationship as “Japan’s Korean soap opera”. I’d call it “sibling rivalry”, but Green is fair-handed – witness the Liancourt Rocks reference.

The incoming Obama administration would do well to pay attention, because the United States’ own influence in Northeast Asia rests in large measure on how well its two principal allies get along. And all is not well between these two U.S. allies.

When the left-leaning Roh Moo-hyun was president of South Korea and the right-leaning Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister of Japan, the two did not get along terribly well at all. They clashed over just about everything — Koizumi’s controversial visits to the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo, Roh’s political attacks on pro-Japan politicians in Seoul, contested claims over the Liancourt Rocks, and Japanese revisionist history textbooks. When the conservative Lee Myung-bak was elected last year, the Japanese hoped relations would improve, but most of the same problems continue to plague the relationship. And Japan isn’t helping itself much.

The Japanese political leadership continues hitting the most sensitive buttons in domestic Korean politics, undercutting Japan’s larger strategic position in East Asia. Part of the problem is the weakness of coalition governments in Japan and Korea’s own polarized and hypersensitive domestic political scene. The difficulties with Korea also reflect the collateral damage of Japan’s more assertive stance vis-à-vis a rising China, because all issues related to sovereignty and national pride are now punctuated in Japan — this even despite the fact that they could have the perverse effect of increasing China’s influence on the Korean Peninsula.

Japan’s current Korea policy also stands in contrast to a much more proactive effort to balance a rising China elsewhere in the region. During the past decade, Japan has tightened its security alliance with the United States, extending defense planning to “situations in the area around Japan.” In March 2007, Japan signed a bilateral security cooperation agreement with Australia, and last October with India. Prime Minister Aso has also been a champion of “values diplomacy” aimed at implicitly contrasting Japan’s strong commitment to universal norms with China’s own dubious record on human rights and relations with unsavory regimes such as Sudan.

So far, Aso has ignored the perfunctory protests in Seoul over history. There’s the story about a contract between POSCO and Toyota to use South Korean steel in Japanese car plants, although it might just be a negotiating tactic. Another related story involves a South Korean KOMPSAT-3 satellite blasted into orbit atop a Mitsubishi H2-A rocket.

Additionally, both leaders will coordinate efforts to overcome recession. Aso will also help ROK join the Financial Stability Forum. Finally, both leaders agreed to work together with incoming President Barack H. Obama to negotiate with DPRK over nukes.

Fingers crossed…Aso and Lee might just mean business!

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