Tokyo and Seoul are countering China’s ambitions

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South Korea and Japan

The emergence of a pro-Western alliance between Japan and South Korea, under the guidance of the United States, is reshaping the geopolitical landscape in a world marred by the Ukrainian conflict. Similar to the way Vladimir Putin’s aggression against a European neighbour rekindled NATO’s purpose, China’s provocations along with its North Korean ally have pushed Japan and South Korea into a strategic partnership. This development is remarkable given the longstanding animosity between these two major U.S. allies, a legacy of events spanning decades, if not centuries.

Japan and South Korea have a deeply intertwined and intricate history characterized by periods of conflict and tension. Their adversarial relationship can be traced back as far as the 7th Century, with Japan making repeated attempts to invade the Korean Peninsula throughout the centuries. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea, effectively transforming it into a colony under its rule. As the late 1930s approached, Japan was gearing up for war, embarking on a path of militarization. This included coercing individuals into labour in factories and mines, as well as conscripting them into military service.

Another dark chapter in this history unfolded as Japan forced tens of thousands of women, many of whom were Korean, into military brothels to serve Japanese soldiers. These women, tragically, would later be known as “comfort women.” Japan’s dominion over Korea finally came to an end in 1945, following its defeat in World War II. However, it would take another two decades before South Korean President Park Chung-hee decided to normalize relations with Japan. This normalization was achieved through an agreement that involved substantial financial assistance, including loans and grants amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The rapprochement between Tokyo and Seoul can be attributed to three major geopolitical upheavals. First, the proliferation of aggressive nuclear actions by Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator. Second, China’s tacit support for Vladimir Putin in his Ukrainian endeavours. The third, and arguably the most critical, is China’s President Xi Jinping’s hostile stance towards neighbouring countries, including threats and intimidation against Taiwan, joint military exercises with the Russian navy near Japanese waters, the militarization of uninhabited islets in the South China Sea, and sanctions against South Korea for hosting American anti-missile systems.

During discussions at Camp David, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea laid the foundation for a long-term alliance. They agreed to hold annual summits, intensify joint efforts in ballistic defence, establish an emergency communication channel among their leadership, and create a multi-year programme of joint military exercises. Their joint statement expressed opposition to “unilateral attempts to change the status quo in Indo-Pacific waters” and emphasized the need for “stability in the Taiwan Strait.” Although not explicitly named, the primary audience for this message is undoubtedly Beijing’s leaders.

The Biden administration has adeptly capitalized on this geopolitical shift by revitalizing the Quadrilateral Security Forum (comprising the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia), launching the AUKUS alliance with the UK and Australia, strengthening the U.S. military presence in the Philippines, and outlining a trilateral alliance with Tokyo and Seoul.

Although the latter alliance remains fragile and susceptible to domestic political fluctuations in the three participating countries, it underscores a crucial lesson for Europe: despite the conflict in Ukraine, the United States’ foremost foreign policy priority remains China.

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