By Michael Sauer
Escalating tensions between Japan and South Korea, foundational members of the East Asia alliance, are threatening to upend the region’s geopolitical balance. The alliance of three liberal democracies, comprising of the United States, South Korea, and Japan, serves as the bedrock of security, prosperity, and peace in East Asia. Conjoined, despite the sins of history, South Korea and Japan have reinforced and championed the East Asian alliance since World War II.
Between 1946-1953, the United States, serving as the union’s lynchpin, transformed Japanese-South Korean animosity into mutual companionship and reconstructed the entire continental paradigm to expedite recovery, renewal, and strength. While internal frictions have frequently vexed the alliance, unbroken American leadership and goodwill among nations wrought seven consecutive decades of stability. Amid perennial security concerns, painful growth, and hostile adversaries, the alliance held firm.
But today, the guardrails which guided the alliance through thick and thin have largely dissolved. The United States has appeared oblivious to treaty allies retaliating against one another and the multitude of challenges gnawing away at American power. Short of a complete policy reversal, the United States risks relegating the past 70+ years to collective nostalgia and to its adversaries, the awesome pulpit of power it once possessed.
Strains between Japan and South Korea trace back over a century. Driven by an instinctual sense of superiority, imperial Japan sought to overwhelm East Asia by force and impose a ruthless colonial regime on its subjects. During World War II, Japan’s military exploited South Korean women as sex slaves — a most brutal and humiliating subjugation. Treaties agreed upon in 1965 and 2015, respectively, obligated Japan to recompense both South Korean women and their families for their forced servitude.
The 1965 treaty had Japan disburse payments to the South Korean government; however, South Korea forwarded just fractions of the cash to the women and families themselves. The government overwhelmingly pooled these resources into instruments for economic investment throughout the 20th century, facilitating the nation’s rapid development. The 2015 treaty augmented its predecessor in scope to include direct family members, but after assuming office, South Korean President Moon Jae-in rejected the treaty’s inviolability as justification for permanently resolving the bilateral dilemma. He was not alone in this conviction.
Spurred by the drive to rectify history’s shortcomings, surviving women and their supporters petitioned the Supreme Court of South Korea for the power to sue responsible Japanese entities directly for damages. To the shock of Japan, and much of South Korea, the Supreme Court vindicated the appeal.
Japan instantly issued hardline refusals to comply with perceived breaches of its sovereignty — allowing a foreign court to dictate the conditions of domestic affairs would be considered unseemly. South Korea retaliated by sequestering Japanese assets within its borders, a move which Japan countered by impeding trade exports critical to South Korea’s tech economy. Soon thereafter, both nations eliminated the other from their catalogues of trusted trade partners. Adding insult to injury, South Korea terminated its involvement in the GSOMIA, the tripartite intelligence-sharing pact of the East Asian alliance, an agreement central to monitoring North Korean nuclear activity.
Each escalation has been a severe repudiation of cooperation in a region that intensely demands it. Inflicting economic pain on a regional democratic partner is profoundly lamentable, no less is severing joint intelligence platforms in a neighborhood fixated on North Korea’s volatility, but most disconcerting is America’s prolonged disinterest on a matter so vital to geopolitical security and alliance sustainment.
President Barack Obama employed a proactive U.S. stance of alliance repairment vis-à-vis South Korea and Japan. He initiated many bilateral negotiations concerning Japan and South Korea, mediating as requested. Indeed, he galvanized talks for the aforementioned 2015 “comfort women” treaty. Regrettably, the turnover in US presidential administrations has coincided with a marked shift in America’s temperament for global alliances. The Trump Administration appears blissfully unconcerned about, if not outrightly ignorant of, the ramifications disengagement presents to the United States’ long-term strategic interests.
The United States does not have the luxury of applying apathy to a theoretical vacuum. Rather, geostrategic competitors, namely China, Russia, and North Korea, operate concurrently in the same environment, all with the broadly shared goal of agitating the U.S. international order. American detachment from this crucial region guarantees damage inflicted by antagonists upon alliances is widely felt and enduring.
China desires to dislodge America’s presence in the East Asian theater. Achieving this enables its revisionist agenda, complete with suppressing political rights, bullying weaker states, and slighting the rule of law, to gain traction against key U.S. allies and partners while American prestige concurrently recedes. Eradicating the alliance is a foremost Chinese foreign policy objective in East Asia, and it expeditiously intercedes upon perceiving weakness.
By positioning themselves as the champion of free trade and joint cooperation, China recently spearheaded productive trade mediations between Japan and South Korea. China cast itself perfectly as the American foil: highly concerned, accommodating, and reliable. While the three-day dialogues hardly embody a permanent geopolitical shift, they illuminate precisely China’s ambitions to commandeer American preeminence. Building political capital to realize this goal is a laborious process, but China, unquestionably the beneficiary of American indifference, is steadfastly committed for the long haul.
Russia seeks to cripple democratic alliances across the globe to embolden its conceited national glory. Vladimir Putin is a textbook despot who understands Russia’s domestic political circumstances are untenable for lasting support. Thus, he garners political capital by undermining purported adversaries abroad in the unending campaign to restore Russia’s long-lost grandeur. In bogging down the United States in the Middle East and rampant disinformation campaigns throughout the Western Hemisphere, America has relinquished its strategic focus in East Asia and ceded to Russia an improbably grand triumph.
North Korea exists to shatter confidence in the East Asian alliance. Fearlessly belligerent, North Korea aims to detach Japan and South Korea from the United States through harassment, coercion, and fear. By courting an isolationist United States ever increasingly into its camp, North Korea has effectively kneecapped the alliance’s ability to counter its own bellicosity, thereby allowing it to intensify regional discord, augment its nuclear delivery platforms, and render the US as exceedingly unreliable. The hermit kingdom has wholly undermined America’s presence and purpose in East Asia.
Democracies are most susceptible to degradation in separation. The United States, South Korea, and Japan have benefited immensely from the strength found only in unity. Preserving liberty and security operate seamlessly in any democratic alliance, and combined forces create a bulwark of freedom regionally and around the globe. Through withdrawal, the United States neglects those principles indispensable to its founding creed and the alliance it established with immense blood, toil, and treasure.
Now more than ever, revamping the East Asian alliance is necessary to rekindle America’s global standing and devotion to democracy. It takes an alliance to defend what is most cherished, but it begins squarely with the United States abandoning self-induced apathy to resurrect the primacy of the East Asian alliance.