Japan Chair Platform: Historically Speaking: Japan-ROK Relations and U.S. Asia Strategy
December 16, 2013
Japan-ROK (the Republic of Korea) relations are stalled again over history. While it is not the first time that leaders of America’s two key allies in East Asia refused to meet or canceled meetings over history, this time concern is mounting anew in Washington that U.S. Asia strategy itself is challenged due to the Seoul-Tokyo diplomatic row. A key to the success of the Obama administration’s rebalancing to Asia strategy depends, at least in part, on having reliable allies and like-minded partners willing to tackle regional and global challenges alongside the United States. Against this backdrop, Presidents Barack Obama and Park Geun-hye confirmed their endorsement of the 2009 U.S.-ROK Joint Vision Statement as a blueprint, which expands the alliance’s scope to include such issue areas as terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, climate change, overseas development, and peacekeeping among others. Similarly, Washington’s desire to work more closely with Japan for regional security resulted in the recent U.S.-Japan agreement during the visit of Secretaries Chuck Hagel and John Kerry to Tokyo in October, a move seen by some in Seoul as Washington’s support for Japan’s remilitarization.
In the minds of many policymakers and analysts, Seoul and Tokyo should make logical partners for each other’s security and foreign policy, especially at a time of strategic uncertainty in the region. After all, Japan and the ROK, as democracies, share common security ties with the United States. Further, they both face a rising China and a dangerous North Korea. Why, then, does U.S.-Japan-ROK security cooperation remain at a relatively low level? Why did Seoul and Tokyo’s attempt at military intelligence cooperation fail in 2012? Clearly, the so-called comfort women issue, the Dokdo/Takeshima islets dispute, the Yasukuni Shrine, or history textbooks are to blame for otherwise mutually beneficial relations. Indeed, in the past few years, it was over these history issues that Japan-ROK relations have repeated the cycle that new leaders who had promised a “future-oriented” relationship almost inevitably ended up repeating the same past diplomatic disputes.