Like another remake of Godzilla, history’s once again rearing its ugly head in Northeast Asia. While news from our region has been dominated of late by China and Japan’s historical animosity, adding to the gloomy picture in Northeast Asia is Japan and South Korea’s growing bitterness over essentially historical issues. Since two Japan–ROK military accords fell through in mid-2012—partly due to their poor shared history—the bilateral relationship has plunged into a downwards spiral.
The actions of conservative politicians from each side have sparked outrage from both publics. Recently, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which enshrines Class A convicted war criminals and cast doubt over Japan’s culpability for wartime aggression, by saying the definition of ‘aggression’ has yet to be established. On the South Korean side, President Park Geun-hye succeeded in having a memorial honouring the Korean independence activist who killed Japan’s first Prime Minister opened in China and said that a Japan–ROK summit would be ‘pointless’ without an apology for ‘past wrongdoings’.
Although Japan and South Korea can cooperate on security when faced with an immediate challenge (such as when they conducted a joint security exercise in China’s ADIZ or previously in response to North Korea), historical and political difficulties prevent the two from establishing deeper and more habitual cooperation.
In the past, the US has been a bridge between Japan and South Korea. However, its alliances with both allow the two to act out against each other with little fear of long-term consequence. This prevents the development of a more robust Japan–ROK partnership. In addition, should China–US rivalry deepen, the US may find it has progressively less influence over South Korea to ‘play nice’ with Japan. South Korea sees China as pivotal in any future reunification of the Koreas and doesn’t want be caught between China–US and China-Japan rivalries. So, if an objective of US–trilateral cooperation is to improve Japan–ROK relations, it’s fundamentally flawed.
Perhaps surprisingly, Australia is emerging as a potentially unique facilitator of Japan–ROK security cooperation. Australia, Japan and South Korea share many similarities in terms of strategic outlooks broadly, security challenges, economic ties, and alliances with the US. Australia has Foreign and Defence Ministers’ Meetings (2+2) and growing defence ties with both countries. If Japan and South Korea can’t cooperate naturally, Australia could manufacture a closer security partnership between the two and achieve multiple strategic objectives through a trilateral arrangement.
Trilateral talks and, down the track, limited maritime security exercises could allow Australia, Japan and South Korea to more effectively address mutual security challenges, increase interoperability between their navies, and consolidate national objectives and defence resources. Another reason to pursue a trilateral partnership is to further diversify our security ties as a hedging strategy in response to China’s re-emergence and perceptions of wavering US commitment to the region.
Australia should take this more proactive approach to Japan–ROK relations because, in contrast to our enormous economic and strategic stake in Northeast Asia (the region accounts for 40% of our total two-way trade in goods and services), we currently have limited ability to directly respond to challenges in the region. Trilateralism could help facilitate deeper Japan–ROK cooperation and allow Australia to respond to challenges above its normal level of influence.
This trilateral proposal offers Australia other unique opportunities—as well as risks. How Australia fits into Japan–ROK cooperation, the merits and pitfalls of a trilateral security cooperation, and whether it’s in Australia’s interests to pursue such an initiative are fleshed out in a new ASPI publication: ‘Manufacturing Partners: Japan–ROK security cooperation and Australia’s potential role’. This publication draws on interviews with Japanese, South Korean and Australian specialists, media coverage, alliance theory, and academic analysis to provide recommendations to the government on how Australia can take a more proactive role in developing relations with and between Tokyo and Seoul.
Hayley Channer is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user jpellgen.