President Donald J. Trump’s desire to put “America First” has fostered new disputes between the United States and its allies. In Asia, old rivalries are also roaring back.
Ties between Japan and South Korea—two of the US’s closest security partners—have arguably turned their most hostile in more than half a century over a series of diplomatic disputes. Now, there are signs that the feud, fueled by disagreements over Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula decades ago, is beginning to damage economic and military relations between the neighbors.
During previous nationalistic flare-ups, US administrations normally intervened to make sure such grudges don’t spin out of control. Not any more.
“There’s no leadership from above in the US administration to act in the way we have in the past,” said Daniel Sneider, a lecturer in international policy at Stanford University and author of books on Northeast Asian relations. “At moments like this, it’s been the role of the US to sometimes quietly step in and help to restore communication and sometimes to find solutions.” The episode in Northeast Asia illustrates how Trump’s skepticism of traditional US alliances and preoccupation with a rolling series of political crises in Washington may be quietly reshaping the postwar geopolitical landscape.
The US State Department didn’t respond to requests for comment on Thursday and Friday.
While ties between Japan and South Korea run deep—each is the other’s third-largest trading partner—they’re laden with centuries of grievances, especially Tokyo’s 1910-1945 colonization of the peninsula. Disputes over whether Japan has sufficiently atoned for its actions returned to the fore after Moon Jae-in won the South Korean presidency in 2017 and pushed back against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to put the war disputes to rest.
In recent weeks, Japan has reacted angrily to South Korean court efforts to seize assets from companies found to have used forced Korean labor in the colonial era, saying the move violates the 1965 treaty that established relations between the two sides. They’ve also sparred over the issue of women forced to work in Japanese military brothels, with Moon vowing after the death of a “comfort woman” campaigner last week to do everything in his power to “correct the history.”
Perhaps most consequential to the US is the deteriorating ties between the Japanese and South Korean militaries—something that could undermine American efforts to counter a rising China. Both defense ministries have accused each other of endangering their personnel after Japan said a South Korean naval vessel used a weapons-targeting radar on one of its military planes in December.
After Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya highlighted the radar incident during a visit to the base where the jet was stationed, his South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo ordered the navy to “deal sternly” with anymore low-flying planes. Kyodo News and other media have said that defense exchanges are being postponed, increasing the potential for misunderstanding during unplanned encounters.
Neither Abe nor Moon have much domestic incentive to settle, with nationalist sentiments running high. A Nikkei newspaper poll published on Monday found 62 percent of Japanese respondents supported a tougher stance against South Korea over the radar incident. That compared with 24 percent who said the Abe administration should watch developments cautiously. “We cannot see where the bottom is,” said Lim Eunjung, an assistant professor at College of International Relations at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan.
Although Tokyo and Seoul have managed to keep their feuding from turning violent over the years, economic risks are growing, including possible Japanese countermeasures against South Korean companies. The number of South Koreans visiting Japan fell 5.5 percent year-on-year in November to 588,000, according to the Japan National Tourist Organization, even as the overall number of inbound tourists rose 3.1 percent.
In the past, the US has used its leverage as chief security guarantor to keep the rivalry in check, helping to broker their 1965 treaty despite domestic opposition on both sides. Former President Barack Obama’s administration played a key role in getting Tokyo and Seoul to sign a comfort women pact in 2015 and a military-intelligence-sharing agreement in 2016—high-water marks for the relationship.