In November, China stunned the world by declaring a new air defense identification zone over most of the East China Sea, the latest in a series of moves to give teeth to its regional land grab.
Beijing’s and Pyongyang’s actions over the past several years have helped rally the region toward one another and the United States as Washington renews its focus on Asia after a dozen years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The ADIZ move in particular should have brought Japan and South Korea together, two close US allies with a rocky relationship, and focus them on a bigger collective threat.
Nevertheless one month later, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enraged the region by becoming the first Japanese leader in seven years to visit the Yasakuni shrine that commemorates 2.5 million war dead, including 14 war criminals. Abe said he went to the shrine to contemplate the staggering cost of war and make clear his nation would never again act the same way again. No matter his intentions, he was seen as a nationalist Japanese leader with a penchant for historical revisionism paying homage to the country’s wartime past.
Washington privately and repeatedly urged Abe against the visit, arguing that doing so would backfire, exacerbate tensions and turn Tokyo into the bad guy, shifting attention away from Beijing.
And that’s exactly what’s happened. Korea and China, which suffered during Japanese occupation, reacted with predictable rage as even Washington issued a rare public rebuke of a move that undermined both Japan’s and US strategic interests.
China, in particular, has fanned this incident and others into a propaganda gold mine.
In the months since, Abe has doubled down, with aides responding by questioning whether America will live up to its treaty obligations.
Seoul also challenges whether America will make good on its self defense agreements as China grows more assertive, with some hinting they ultimately may have to choose between Beijing and Washington, an absurd stance given America fought China on South Korea’s behalf six decades ago.
Both, however, regard US defense cuts, a feebly resourced pivot and the US decision against attacking Syria as ominous signs from its distant ally as its neighbor Beijing grows stronger.
In Washington, such talk fuels anger among officials who stress America will live up to its obligations to two nations that are both allies and key regional security partners. Indeed, on a visit to Beijing last year, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Chinese leaders that America was committed to defending Japan and that an attack on Tokyo would bring Washington into the conflict.
To date, Washington has avoided direct rapprochement talks between its two close allies. But it’s time US diplomats begin quiet shuttle diplomacy to move the collective relationship forward.
Yes, South Korea has historical reasons to mistrust Japan, including Tokyo’s all-too-frequent revisionism regarding its wartime past. But it’s wrong to see Japan’s long overdue emergence as a legitimate defense player and the bolstering of its security capabilities as neo-imperialism. That more than 60 percent of Koreans see Japan as a bigger threat than Pyongyang, despite North Korea’s bomb and repeated attacks on the south, shows the weakness of Seoul’s leaders in the face of popular pressure.
Back in Japan — even those who repudiate the nation’s wartime past — feel nothing they say or do is enough to mollify South Korean anger.
The reality is, these three democracies need one another and are integral to region’s security. They need to address their pasts and together move into the future. And in the meantime, Abe should refrain from doing anything that undermines his nation’s security interests. ■