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How an Alliance System Withers

Washington Is Sleeping Through the Japanese-Korean Dispute. China Isn’t.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and their South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha in Beijing, August 2019  Wu Hong / Reuters

For more than half a century, U.S. power in Asia has rested on the alliance system that Washington built in the years after World War II. Now, a dispute between Japan and South Korea—the two most important pillars of that system—threatens to undo decades of progress.

But instead of seeking to actively mediate between its allies, Washington has largely watched from the sidelines—leaving the field to China, which has moved quickly to benefit from U.S. inaction. At a trilateral summit with the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers in late August, for instance, China encouraged the two sides to at least put aside their differences long enough to make progress on a trilateral trade deal. This should give Washington pause. If, in the years ahead, the U.S. alliance system collapses, it is moments like this that will mark the beginning of the end: moments when Beijing, long intent on breaking U.S. alliances in Asia, proved more capable of managing and reinforcing regional order than a distracted United States.

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE

The latest round of friction between South Korea and Japan began in the halls of South Korea’s supreme court. In the fall of 2018, the court ordered three Japanese companies to compensate South Koreans who claimed that they had been used as forced laborers in World War II. Tokyo, however, maintains that any claims to reparations for wartime abuses were settled by the $800 million in economic aid and loans it paid Seoul under a 1965 treaty. In March 2019, South Korean shop owners organized a nationwide boycott of Japanese goods. In response, the Japanese government restricted exports of three important chemicals used in the South Korean semiconductor industry, which accounts for a quarter of South Korea’s total exports. Japan also removed South Korea from its whitelist of preferred trading partners. Seoul responded in kind and went a step further, pulling out of a new intelligence-sharing agreement that had taken years to negotiate.

Chinese policymakers have recognized the

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