By Jennifer Crist

Jennifer Crist is an MA student at the University of Michigan, Gerald Ford School of Diplomacy.
Introduction

JSA-ASEAN Conference, Dec. 16, 2021

Japan-Korea relations are emerging as an important issue in the Indo-Pacific region. Despite the current bad relationship and mismanagement of historical issues between the two countries, the relationship is being overlooked for its potential. As the regional landscape is changing with the rise of China, postwar stability and the establishment in the Indo-Pacific are being challenged, giving new significance to Japan-Korea relations in influencing the future of the region.

Particularly, cooperation between Japan and South Korea has potential to keep the Sino-American power relationship in balance, helping states in the region avoid the obligation to take sides with either the US or China. This is important since the Indo-Pacific is a highly interdependent region and decoupling from China or the US is not a viable option for any state in the region. ASEAN in this context is a point of convergence between Japan and South Korea, where they both have interest in promoting democratic norms and the rule of law, as well as development projects. Collaboration on non-traditional security issues in ASEAN states could help Japan and South Korea sidestep historical issues and open the door for communication, which could have a spillover effect of improving relations between the two countries overall.

In the past, much of the discussion over the Japan-Korea bilateral relationship has taken place in either Japanese or Korean language forums, leaving room for criticism by nationalists in both countries. This project is an attempt to move into a more neutral space by holding discussions in English, and also involving members that are not specialists on Japan-Korea relationships, but on a variety of other issues, and share the view that the bilateral relationship has an important role for the future of the region.
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Participants

  • Haruko Satoh, Osaka School of International Public Policy (Moderator)
  • Philip Shetler-Jones, Council on Geostrategy
  • Kei Koga, School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University

Panelists’ Remarks

The following is a summary of key points provided by each panelist –

Discussion

Areas of development each country focuses on in Mekong and potential places to work together

Both Japan and South Korea have focused on projects such as water management, human development, and technology such as early warning systems for disasters. However, it’s not clear what each country is actually doing in the region, since the information is not publicized. The first step is to create an information sharing center to identify ongoing projects and areas of overlap between Japan and Korea. A cooperative framework within existing institutions like ASEAN could create a forum for this.

Elaboration on using ASEAN +3 as a forum

Mr. Koga proposed this idea based on the experience of Japan-China cooperation in the past. In 2006-2010, the two countries communicated bilaterally and shared information on Mekong development programs, but lines of communication ultimately collapsed because of politicization. This shows that in bilateral relations, channels of communication can be built, but politicization can cut off these channels. Using an existing multilateral framework can preserve the lines of communication more effectively. Additionally, external powers like Japan and Korea could be effective in putting Mekong on the agenda for ASEAN in general.

Influence of the Quad and US-China Relations

In the beginning, the Quad was molded almost in reaction to what China was doing. Its shift to a focus on infrastructure development and vaccines show that the Quad is no longer ignoring Southeast Asia. A Quad+ format could be flexible in including other countries, but its potential depends on how US stance towards China is going to evolve.

Under the Biden administration, the fundamental US posture towards China has remained same as Trump administration, but the middle powers, such as Japan and South Korea, are not aligning themselves with the US approach to China. This could be their strength – they have the same democratic principles and values as the US, but are more open to communication and collaboration with China. This could give them room to approach other countries, facilitating their ability to promote the rule of law and human rights in ASEAN.

Current importance of the Japan-Korea relationship

The main incentive for improving Japan-Korea bilateral relations is intensification of US-China strategic competition. In this context, the Mekong region is becoming more geopolitically important, creating divisions in the region which are not good for ASEAN or South Korea. Similarly, Japan aligning more closely with the US would create division among ASEAN member states, which wouldn’t be strategically beneficial for Japan.

Japan and South Korea, through collaboration, have an opportunity to mitigate US-China geopolitical competition over Mekong region development. Both countries want to see more ASEAN autonomy in East Asia, and share strategic interests to cooperate even if they don’t perfectly align.

Impact of the negative UK-EU relationship on European engagement in the Indo-Pacific

There is no single coherent European approach to the Indo-Pacific; different ideas exist within the EU, not just between the UK and the EU. There is economic competition between European countries in their Indo-Pacific region ventures, but that was present when UK was in the EU as well. What has changed is that the current government in the UK came to power on the Brexit policy and is expected to deliver on the idea of British influence extending far beyond Europe – for example, by joining trade agreements in Asia such as the CPTPP. This does not inhibit the EU in its policy toward the Indo-Pacific, and the EU’s success will be determined by other factors. Additionally, as the Biden administration opens to more collaboration with allies, the EU is finding a better partner in Washington than in the past. This means the difference between the EU and UK in terms of willingness to algin with the US is decreasing, showing movement toward harmonization of interests.

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