China and Ukraine force rivals Japan and South Korea to rethink

The former (a G7 member) has invited the latter as its guest to this weekend’s summit. The event follows two historic summits between Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, with both leaders visiting each other’s capitals for talks over sake and beer.

This was a big deal. These were their first formal meetings for more than a decade, beginning the process of resolving bitterness from Japan’s colonial occupation of South Korea from 1910-45. 

President Joe Biden called it a “groundbreaking new chapter” at the White House in March. Without mentioning China by name, he couched the strengthening partnership as one of “free and open” democracies against authoritarianism — a central theme of his administration.

At at a trilateral meeting the G7 summit, Biden invited Yoon and Kishida for another meeting Washington, a senior U.S. official said. In a statement issued after the talks, the White House said the leaders had “discussed how to take their trilateral cooperation to new heights,” including with new coordination in the face of North Korea‘s “illicit nuclear and missile threats.”

Japan announced late last year that its military spending will double to 2% of its gross domestic product — a historic departure from its supposedly “pacifist” constitution. It ruffled feathers in Beijing with its decision to deploy Patriot missile batteries on islands close to Taiwan. And it is even considering opening a NATO liaison office, Koji Tomita, Japan’s ambassador to the U.S., said last week, a small but symbolically significant gesture of Western solidarity.

In South Korea, the feeling that North Korea’s arsenal is becoming ever more of a threat means that more than 70% now favor developing nuclear weapons of their own, a poll last year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found.

That prompted Washington to announce a new defense pact with the government in Seoul, which included the U.S. sending nuclear-capable submarines to the country — so long as it reaffirmed its promise not to try to get its hands on nuclear weapons of its own.

South Korea is heavily reliant on China for trade, so it has historically been careful with how it treats its giant neighbor. But relations between the two have dipped as of late, particularly after South Korea’s president, Yoon, suggested China was attempting “to change the status quo by force” in Taiwan. This sparked a tit-for-tat summoning of ambassadors, with China’s Foreign Ministry calling the comments “erroneous” and “totally unacceptable.”

Anti-war protesters gather Wednesday in Hiroshima ahead of the G7.Louise Delmotte / AP

Simon Chelton, a former British defense attache in Tokyo, said it would be wrong to chalk up the developments solely to concerns over China, North Korean missile tests or prompting by the U.S. — but rather a more complex mix of all three that has been brewing for years if not decades.

“The reason that Japan is now increasing spending is not a knee-jerk reaction to what Biden is saying, it’s not a sudden whim,” said Chelton, who is now an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. “It is a gradual buildup that goes back many years. Everything in Japan is always gradual.”

China sees these moves merely as an excuse for Japan and South Korea to toe America’s line on containing Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a briefing last week that the trio were using North Korea “as a pretext to strengthen military cooperation.” He blamed the U.S. allies for increasing the risk of “bloc confrontation in the region” and undermining “the already fragile mutual trust” between them and Beijing. 

The state-run news agency Xinhua wrote the same day that “the US has been trying to put together an anti-China coterie for a long time,” describing the alliance as “a plot.”

Many experts agree that the strengthening trio is in part motivated by China — and with good reason.

“China’s military modernization over the past two decades, involving annual double-digit increases in military spending, combined with greater assertiveness about China’s disputed territorial claims, generates unease about Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions,” Kingston, at Temple University, said.

That unease has produced an unlikely bonhomie that not only subverts the bitter rivalry of yesterday but also could shape today’s geopolitical status quo — starting this weekend.

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