One Step Forward, Two Backward: Japan-South Korea Military Relations

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, right, with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing on May 14 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Recently, Japan and South Korea announced that they would sign a military agreement that the two sides had been working on for quite a while. While the two countries have strong economic ties, military relations have always been quite limited, mostly due to multilateral efforts with the United States. Considering the bad blood between these two countries, going back to Japanese efforts to colonize Korea during the early 20th century, this is not surprising at all. It does, however, make it that much more important to understand the elements of this agreement that ultimately pushed Japan and South Korea closer together.

In particular, the agreement had two major goals related to information sharing: North Korea’s nuclear program and Chinese military expansion. While the former, thus far, has received the bulk of media attention, the latter deserves some attention as well. China is devoting enormous sums of money to expanding and modernizing its military. The size of China’s navy is increasing at an incredible rate, with China spending the most out of any country in the region, and being second only to India in the number of ships ordered. The purchase and refitting of a former Russian aircraft carrier has also contributed to concerns.

Japan and South Korea are not the only states in Asia that are concerned. There is a larger regional perspective to consider. For example, since India has traditionally been the dominant naval power in South Asia, and seeks to maintain that position, India’s efforts to keep up with China militarily might very well take on the characteristics of a naval arms race. In addition, India’s development of the Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile, with the ability to hit any part of China, seems to be fairly clear evidence that India is concerned with Chinese expansion.

To some observers, it appears to be that these countries are beginning to “counterbalance” against China, or move to limit Chinese power. From this perspective, the attempt at an agreement between Japan and South Korea seems like a single move in a greater tapestry of maneuvers designed to check the rise of China. The logic for this is simple: China is the biggest, most powerful state in the region by far, and continues to grow. This growth, and the subsequent increases in military spending and influence, threaten (or at least appear to threaten) the other states throughout Asia. Moving into the future, we should expect to see further attempts at counterbalancing, either internally, such as with India’s increased military spending, or externally, as with the attempted Japan-South Korea agreement.

To be certain, checking Chinese power is not a frictionless endeavor, nor is it guaranteed to properly occur. There are numerous factors that can intervene and prevent balancing from happening. One important factor is domestic politics, as factors within the state can delay or completely stop things from proceeding. Shortly after the agreement came to light, there was a significant backlash against the South Korean government, with the opposition party accusing of President Lee Myung-bak being “pro-Japanese.” Given that this is an election year, it is not surprising that we are seeing this agreement being pushed to the side for the time being.

Another major concern that could prevent effective coordination is the multitude of potential threats that exist, apart from China. South Korea and China have long been wary over Japanese military growth, and talks over the past couple of years about Japan removing the Article IX clause of its constitution, and thus legally allowing Japan to move from having a “Self Defense Force” to a full military, has caused a great deal of fear. It is not out of the question that if this came to fruition South Korea might end up attempting to play both sides against the other. Coming back to India, their recent shifts in military policy and spending have caused a reaction from their traditional enemy, Pakistan, thus potentially leading to increasing tensions between those two states, even if China is a larger threat to the region at large.

While some would argue that China is the clear and present danger in Asia, with the potential to hold a dominant position in regional politics, delving into the domestic politics of the various states throughout Asia raises concerns about how readily those states will be able to act jointly against a rising China. Specifically related to the agreement between Japan and South Korea, this seems to be more of a bump in the road than a checkpoint: after the election has passed, the military pact will almost certainly come into being, if only because the dual threat of North Korea’s nuclear program and Chinese military might will demand it. Beyond that, however, only time will tell how events in Asia will unfold.

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One thought on “One Step Forward, Two Backward: Japan-South Korea Military Relations

  1. Pingback: Island Fever: Understanding the Recent Tension in East Asia | The Smoke-Filled Room

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