Hidden hands behind Japan-South Korea conflict?
States foreign policy and military planning for the Asia-Pacific region has been thrown into turmoil with a major diplomatic stand-off between Japan and South Korea (ROK).
Both countries, historically, were closely linked to the US and host important military facilities for the US imperialists.
It is important, however, to consider the role of China and the recent position taken by the Trump administration toward Beijing; it has had implications for US-led diplomacy toward Japan and the ROK.
There is more to the matter than meets the eye: the rise of China has dramatically altered the traditional balance of forces across the region with favourable trade; it has successfully challenged US-led hegemonic positions.
It has also, correspondingly, had an impact upon Japan and the ROK in a major drama being played-out behind the scenes, revealing hidden hands.
There are also important implications for Australia.
Readers of mainstream Australian media and the business press have had the opportunity recently to coverage about a diplomatic stand-off between Japan and the ROK. The coverage was extremely limited, to avoid unfavourable publicity for US regional foreign policy which has historically relied upon the two countries as allies.
Both Japan and the ROK have recently removed one another from lists of countries with favourable trade status. The problem has had a direct impact upon component companies and electronic parts used by US-based corporate sector organisations including Apple and Amazon. (1) While the two countries have been bickering for decades about a number of issues, recent developments signify an escalation of developments; Japan began moves against the ROK with tighter controls on three materials, fluorinated polyimide, photoresist and hydrogen fluoride. They are used in semi-conductors for smart-phones and other high-tech devices which are considered key exports for ROK-based manufacturing industries. (2)
Fears have already been raised in both Tokyo and Seoul about the effect of the problem upon closely-knitted supply-chains following the tighter controls which are scheduled to begin on 28 August. The outcome will not be a minor storm in tea-cup and has already raised fears that the dispute 'could batter the global tech market', following a meeting between the Japanese Foreign Minister and the ROK ambassador in Tokyo. (3)
The timing of the diplomatic stand-off, however, is particularly relevant.
It began soon after an ROK Supreme Court ruling that some Japanese companies were liable and must compensate Korean citizens for their forced labour at the hands of Japanese occupation forces. The Japanese government has not accepted the legal decision and has denied any liability.
There has been little ambiguity with the position taken by Japan following the Supreme Court decision. At the high-level diplomatic meeting in Tokyo, Foreign Minister Taro Kono demanded the ROK ambassador to 'immediately take corrective measures'. (4)
The developments have been closely followed by many ROK citizens who have long held the issue to be of central importance when dealing with Japan.
Subsequent well-attended ROK protests outside the main Japanese embassy in Seoul also turned ugly when a 78 year-old man set himself on fire in late July and killed himself. The man, called Mr. Kim, was protesting about his late father-in-law who had been a forced labourer. (5)
The diplomatic stand-off has far-reaching implications for US-led regional defence and security provision.
Both Japan and the ROK host key US-led military facilities in their countries; the former is defended by rapid deployment forces based in the latter under the Defence of Japan (DOJ) doctrine. In more recent times the full implementation of the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD) has involved Japan being elevated to the status of a northern regional hub for 'US interests', linked to Australia as a southern counterpart. The Trump administration has also adopted regional planning along the lines of a 'force posture initiative'; with both Japan and Australia being formally linked to the Pentagon for regional operations. (6)
Countries, situated around the northern and southern regional hubs, are planned to cluster around with favourable trade links and military alliances. The ROK, for example, is closely linked within the TSD framework to Japan.
Other problems, however, have arisen: studies, from reliable and well-informed sources have revealed Japan has become more nationalistic and militaristic, particularly under the administrations of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. (7) The development has served 'US interests' well, with Japan being placed in the forefront of diplomatic rivalry with China and North Korea (DPRK).
It is not particularly difficult to unravel the tangled web of intrigue around the concept of 'US interests'. Seemingly minor squabbles over the Takeshima / Dokdo Islets have become major diplomatic problems for Japan and the ROK as they contest control of the strategically-placed small land-masses. The matter is the thinner-end of a much bigger wedge: it has been noted that the matter has received 'extensive media attention in Japan and provides the Abe government with an excuse to whip up nationalism'. (8)
The issue of Japanese nationalism has remained a particularly conspicuous sticking-point with relations with both the ROK and DPRK. While the US has been quick to gloss over past atrocities to enable the implementation of their regional foreign policy, evidence of the lasting significance and the legacy of Japanese military occupation between 1910-45 and gross human rights abuses can be easily observed with the recent Seoul Supreme Court legal decision.
While Japan has taken one course of development, the ROK has also taken another; recent initiatives from previous presidential administrations to the present one of President Moon Jae-in have seen the ROK wish to pursue a more conciliatory line toward China, which is its largest trading partner, and the northern DPRK with which they seek to re-open favourable trade links including those based in the Kaesong Trade Park. China is also a major trading partner with the DPRK, meaning the three countries are pulling closer together and have vested interests in maintaining close links.
The decision by the Trump administration to take an aggressive diplomatic position toward China has, therefore, driven a wedge between Japan and the ROK. The moves by the Trump administration add further weight to the claims made by former British ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darrock in leaked diplomatic memos that described the residents of the White House as inept, uniquely dysfunctional and incompetent; they have not been clever. (9) The US behaviour, taken in the context that the US 'built the foundations' of the ROK following the Korean War and used the artificially-created country for Cold War logic and operations, show how far later developments have had a bearing upon the present-day ROK.
The ROK is no longer a client-type state subject to dictate at the behest of US imperialism, but a country proud of its own sovereignty and pursuing its own interests.
Amid the escalation of the diplomatic stand-off between Japan and the ROK, for example, a media release from the ROK presidential office stating 'Seoul would also consider ending a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan' obviously sent shudders directly into the heartland of the Pentagon; a joint US-ROK military exercise, Dong Maeng was taking place at the same time. (10) The statement clearly revealed the strength of feeling within the ROK elite toward Japan, even if the formal TSD US-led military planning were to be rendered non-operational.
While the Korean phrase Dong Maeng means alliance in English, diplomacy between the US and the ROK has become increasingly strained behind the scenes. The once huge joint military exercises have now been scaled down to largely computer simulations. (11) The US-led military planning has become symbolic although the arrival of US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper in Seoul in the lead-up to Dong Maeng is evidence the US intends to keep a foothold inside the ROK military apparatus.
It has not been difficult to establish the timing of the Asian tour by Esper to meet regional leaders, or what was regarded as a priority matter for official agendas: it took place following an official media release from the White House stating that 'America wanted to deploy ground-based intermediate-range missiles in Asia sooner rather than later' in the lead-up to the recent AUSMIN summit. (12) A later media release concluded with the statement the US required a host government within striking range of the Chinese mainland to base their missiles and 'it is certainly relevant to places.....like South Korea'. (13)
The problem confronting the US, however, is that regional leaders who were once sycophantic including those in the ROK, have become hesitant being seen to follow the continually changing line of the Trump administration which many think will be only a one-term presidency; US demands are subject to longer-term scrutiny and will be dismissed if Trump is voted out next year.
Times, however, have also moved on for many countries across the Asia-Pacific region, with far-reaching implications for US foreign policy. The Abe administration, for example, has attempted to use historical decisions without reference to the circumstances under which matters were resolved with expedience.
Following the recent ROK Supreme Court legal decision, the Abe administration drew attention to what they regarded as a historic resolution to the matter. An official Japanese media release noted the 'issue was completely and finally settled under the 1965 treaty normalising relations.....official documents from 1961 showed that South Korea declined Japan's proposal for compensation', without noting the ROK, at that time, was controlled by US-led stooge governments with military control. (14) It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for leaders in Seoul to have resisted US directives which had the DOJ as a maximum priority with their agendas. Today, the ruling administration of President Moon Jae-in in Seoul, finds itself in a rather different and stronger position.
It is, however, when studying the smaller print of official media releases the further, more incriminating side of the present diplomatic stand-off between Japan and the ROK comes to light. While the US has been largely successful at pushing the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei away from participation in new 5G networks in Australia and Japan, they have been less successful elsewhere. Recent US foreign policy initiatives have, therefore, included a 'determination to create non-Chinese supply chains and equipment supplies in emerging hi-tech areas'. (15) The role of the ROK in global hi-tech research and development should not be overlooked; the country, has in fact, been in the forefront of many important developments and a major manufacturing hub.
When an official media release drew attention to a 'big statement from the TSD' about 'the roll-out of next-generation telecommunications networks', considerable light was thrown upon US foreign policy concerns. (16) The TSD, like a great deal of US-led military planning, has made extensive use of commercial telecommunications networks for communications. The linkage between the military-industrial complex has taken the form of
the military leasing part of required electronic systems from the corporate sector. As the ROK has developed closer trade links with China, the 'national security concerns' referred to by the US-led planning, and 'South Korea's handling of Japanese products', reveals the hidden hands of US complicity in the recent diplomatic stand-off. (17) The US is attempting to bring the ROK closer to 'US interests', and away from China.
How the present diplomatic stand-off between Japan and the ROK is resolved, remains as yet to be seen. It is doubtful, however, the ROK will comply with US directives.
It has been particularly interesting to note the position of the Australian business-classes toward recent developments. Recent coverage in the business press included a statement that 'Australia has been drawn into an increasingly hawkish, anti-China, US-led view of the world'. (18) The recent appointment, by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, of Andrew Shearer, a noted anti-China hawk and former deputy-director of the Office of National Assessment, to the position as Cabinet Secretary reveals just how far the present-day coalition government has slavishly followed US-led directives at the expense of Australian-based considerations. (19)
In conclusion, three points arise:
• whether well-placed opposition figures in Canberra are capable of driving a wedge between US-led military planning and those neglecting Australian-based interests remains doubtful following their recent federal performance. To do so, however, would reveal the US-led military players concerned in a very dim light and expose their agendas;
• the fact the US-led military-industrial elite and their compliant governments expect ordinary working people to accept without question their seemingly contradictory positions and fight their wars is something we should have on our agenda. Ordinary working people have nothing to gain from wars;
• and then there is also the question of the effect of the interruption on trade between Japan the and ROK and supply-chains in Australia, potentially affecting thousands of ordinary working people in an industry which is already heavily casualised with large numbers of workers in vulnerable employment;
We also need an independent foreign policy!
1. S Korea, Japan in tit-for-tat trade row, Australian, 5 August 2019.
2. Trade a new front in Tokyo, Seoul brawl, The Weekend Australian, 3-4 August 2019.
3. S Korean dies after fiery protest at embassy, The Weekend Australian, 20-21 July 2019.
6. Tapestry of relationships a bulwark for open Pacific, Editorial, Australian, 5 August 2019.
7. Japan's fresh start stales, Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2014.
9. White House 'inept': UK envoy, Australian, 8 July 2019; and, President hits back at UK envoy who called White House 'inept', Australian, 9 July 2019; and, Leaked memos brand Trump and the White House as 'inept, dysfunctional', The New Daily, 8 July 2019.
10. Weekend Australian, op.cit., 3-4 August 2019.
11. No plan to change South Korea – US military exercise, Newsmax, 31 July 2019; and, US – South Korea Military Exercise, Military.com., 19 July 2019.
12. Beijing opens fire on 'offensive' US missile plan for Indo-Pacific, Australian, 7 August 2019.
13. Hosting US missiles not on the agenda, says PM, Australian, 6 August 2019.
14. Weekend Australian, op.cit., 3-4 August 2019.
15. Allies fall into place behind South Pacific plan, The Weekend Australian, 3-4 August 2019.
17. Australian, op.cit., 5 August 2019.
18. China's sending a message, Australian, 7 August 2019.
19. PM picks China hawk for cabinet secretary, Australian, 8 August 2019.