Every time a dispute arises between Japan and South Korea, voices are inevitably raised insisting that the United States should get involved as a mediator to help preserve the U.S. alliance system in East Asia. What these demands miss, however, is that these countries have their own interests and equities which go beyond the question of their relationship with the United States. This is a point that has already been made by others, but it bears repeating – what is presently taking place between Japan and South Korea reflects the fact that while both nations are U.S. allies, they also have fundamentally different interests and outlooks from the United States on key questions. Any U.S. mediation in this dispute which does not acknowledge this as a starting point from this point will ultimately fail and could even undercut the legitimacy of the U.S. as a disinterested arbitrator.
This is not to say that the United States should not act to prevent backsliding – like South Korea’s withdrawal from the intelligence-sharing General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) – certainly, it should act to preserve the frameworks of its alliances. The idea that the United States needs to intervene for geostrategic purposes such as preventing China from breaking up the U.S. alliance system, however, both speaks to a “do something” impulse in U.S. foreign policy and misunderstands the problem. Any U.S. desire to remedy the situation between Japan and South Korea should arise not from a desire to prevent China from stepping into a possible vacuum, but from a more fundamental commitment to reinforcing the underpinnings of liberal order that guarantee regional stability – something that should be an end unto itself, not a surrogate for a U.S.-centric status quo.
For China to “step into the void,” it would need to replace U.S. credibility in Japan and South Korea. Instead, China enjoys almost no friendly relationships along its borders – and like Japan, South Korea already understands well the risks that come with a China that is willing to throw its elbows around. South Korea knows that any exports from China implicitly come with the threat of coercion, like that which China employed with Japan during the rare earths embargo, or against South Korea itself in the dispute over THAAD deployment. Notably, the THAAD dispute was accompanied by far more nationalistic rage in China than has been seen in Japan over the course of its current dispute with South Korea.
If the U.S. attempts to calm a dispute over Japan’s colonial legacy, it risks being seen as partisan interference in Korea’s domestic politics
In rushing to see off the paper tiger of China’s stepping into the vacuum, the United States could even harm its own interests, especially if it fails to act from the right assumptions. It would be a mistake, especially regarding South Korea, to assume that national interests transcend domestic politics. While most interests do, questions of Japan’s colonial legacy are a political dividing line between Korea’s liberals and conservatives. If the United States were to attempt calm the fracas, even with the best of intentions, it would aggravate perceptions that United States is itself a partisan actor in Korea’s domestic politics. Both Japan and South Korea are mature, established liberal democracies with professional and capable bureaucracies and decades of contact between their governments. If they do not share common interests in the nature of their relationship, this should not be assumed to be a deviation from their national interests – rather, it is the natural expression of the national interests of two democratic states. Unless and until that dispute begins to credibly undermine regional security, such as by preventing cooperation regarding common threats like North Korea’s nuclear program (whose current situation already reflects fundamentally different approaches between Japan, South Korea, and the United States), the ability to allow a degree of difference, especially on fundamental issues connected to their sense of nationhood, is essential to liberalism.
The idea that the United States needs to manage disputes between allies to secure the liberal order in East Asia points to a bigger question about the meaning of that order. When “liberal international order” is evoked, it’s often used to imply a status quo bias towards U.S. hegemony. Far less often does it invoke introspection about the common goods that such hegemony is supposed to provide. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was meant to be one such answer, helping liberalize regional markets but more importantly setting high standards for the rules governing commerce – rules which would reflect values like transparency, rule of law, and more. These are the exact standards that a liberal order should provide. Allowing participating states to offer proactive contributions and leverage their own national interests so long as they do not conflict with the greater good of the system are additional benefits.
It is hard to ask Asian leaders to accept a U.S.-led order when the U.S. administration itself is deliberately undercutting it.
Trump’s withdrawal from TPP and the ensuing trade war with China, however, have forced alternative futures for the liberal order in the Asia-Pacific to simply focus on avoiding further backsliding. In the context of a region which includes some of the fastest-growing economies and rapidly growing wealth, it is increasingly difficult to ask regional decision makers to continue to accept the liberal order and the U.S. hegemony that underwrites it when the administration at the helm of U.S. policy is explicitly and deliberately undercutting it. To be clear, China does not offer a much more appealing alternative (as is demonstrated by the experience of Hong Kong, or many nations’ experiences thus far of the Belt and Road Initiative), but the case for a U.S.-led liberal order in East Asia was already on the ropes as soon as Obama began to waffle on TPP.
It is true, even obvious, that the United States has not always been an ideal liberal power, especially in Asia, but that reality should not be a veto on future U.S. contributions to the liberal order – or to the liberal order itself. The reason that the United States should remain involved in Asia is not to contain China, but because the United States (for now, at least) is one of only a few countries in the Asia-Pacific with institutional capacity and intellectual preference to guarantee and deepen a liberal order that can provide collective goods in the region.
Justifying that order once again after the damage its image has suffered in recent years will mean acknowledging that U.S. alliances are more than path dependency – that the alliances support a system which can provide for the region’s welfare and governance in ways that China, or any other power, cannot at this point (while allowing for the possibility that they might in the future). Part of that means acknowledging that disputes among allies may sometimes mean more than a temporary rift and can speak to fundamental issues between the countries that are only tangentially relevant to the United States.
Supporting institutions where Japan and South Korea can work out their disputes would be the best contribution the U.S. could make right now
One easy, indirect way for the United States and other nations to help reduce the impact of such disagreements would be to ensure that the World Trade Organization maintains a robust capacity to mediate disputes. As Robin Harding of the Financial Times pointed out, both Japan and South Korea have largely adhered to the rulings made by the organization’s dispute settlement body. The eventual outcome of the WTO’s October 2 ruling in an anti-dumping case on pneumatic valves will be telling – both Japan and South Korea claimed that the decision was in their favor and now have 15 months to reach a settlement before Japan can claim retaliatory duties against South Korea. This should serve as a useful barometer of the two countries’ ability to find common ground. This invaluable forum for compromise will however be effectively eliminated if the Trump administration continues to block appointments to the WTO’s appellate body, which hears appeals on dispute settlement reports. For the United States, a country ostensibly committed to the liberal order, this is a situation which undercuts its role in both argument and practice.
The current dispute between Japan and South Korea is not one that can be managed by any external actor in the sense of finding a resolution – only in the sense of containing the damage. If the United States wants to help, the best thing it can do is to support the international forums which allow both sides to engage and work out their differences. Robust support of those institutions and the rules they uphold would be a much better defense of liberalism in Asia than any attempt to get involved in an intrinsically local dispute among neighbors.