Summary of the Special Roundtable on South Korea-Japan Relations

As part of the OSIPP-IAFOR Research Centre’s (IRC) collaborative project on Korea and Japan in the Evolving China-US Relations, the Korea Foundation sponsored a Special Roundtable during the AAS-in-Asia 2020 Conference. Entitled “Japan and Korea in the US-China Relations: A Reappraisal of the Post-War Order”, the panel featured scholars from East Asian institutions, Haruko Satoh from Osaka University, Brendan Howe from Ehwa Womans University, Jaewoo Choo from Kyung Hee University, June Park from the National Research Foundation of Korea, Xianfeng Yang from Yonsei University, Kei Koga and Mingjiang Li, both from Nanyang Technological University.

Following the President of the Research Institute for Peace and Security, Masashi Nishihara’s keynote presentation on East Asia geopolitics, “Rebuilding a Resilient Liberal Democratic Order”, panel Chair Haruko Satoh opened the roundtable with a characterisation of the rapidly changing East Asian international relations environment and the question of how South Korea-Japan bilateral relations could influence US-China great power politics and regional security. Brendan Howe began the discussion with Non-Traditional Security (NTS) as a promising arena for South Korea-Japan bilateral relations to flourish. He pointed out that with the inadequacy of state-centric, traditional security models and the failure of great power leadership to address current transnational challenges such as COVID-19, NTS cooperation between South Korea and Japan could not only address both countries’ national interests but may also be a regional strategic necessity. Jaewoo Choo concurred. However, with the persistent antagonistic relations between South Korea and Japan, he pointed out that the politicisation and securitisation of NTS impede the progress of South Korea-Japan bilateral relations. As shown in the case of territorial disputes in South China Sea, states are wont to turn non-traditional security concerns into traditional ones, therefore addressing issues such as water security with retaliatory measures based on sanctions and military deployment. A way to recalibrate such perspective is to see great power leadership in the regional context, where the US plays a less significant role. According to Choo, by looking at Japan as regional power and South Korea as a middle power, we may see a better prospect of the two working together towards a more stable region.

Departing from the notion that South Korea and Japan share common interests and conditions in East Asian geopolitics, Xianfeng Yang invited the audience to closely examine the geostrategic divergence between the two countries, which have a significant impact on the balance of their relations. Two issues of divergence warranting further scrutiny centre on North Korea and Pan-Korean nationalism: denuclearisation and unification, where, according to Yang, Japan plays a peripheral role. Compared to Japan, South Korea’s domestic and alliance politics makes it more complicated to deal with China and the US. For Kei Koga, one of the biggest challenges to forging a strong South Korea-Japan bilateral relationship is the absence of institutionalisation of previous efforts. Yet, the emerging trends of multilateralism in East Asia offer a model for the two countries to follow. India in particular, presents a possible alternative of serving as a hub for South Korea and Japan to collaborate on shared regional commitments in functional areas such as infrastructure development.

June Park brought the discussion back how great power rivalry between US and China could stir South Korea and Japan relations, specifically in the domain of technology. The existing technological disputes between US and China, most notably regarding Huawei, and changes the COVID-19 pandemic brought made it very difficult to predict the geopolitical implications of tech wars. However, Park reminded us that it is important to understand the drive for tech-related conflict between South Korea and Japan is mainly about US and China. Focusing more on China and COVID-19, Mingjiang Li probed into the contribution of Xi Jinping’s “Health Silk Road” diplomacy to China’s soft power. Amidst China’s existing efforts towards public health cooperation in East and Central Asia, the COVID-19 pandemic made the Health Silk Road a part of China’s Emergency Diplomacy in both the West and Asia, where perceptions diverged. What it revealed is that Health Diplomacy did not have a significant impact on China’s soft power. Rather, it confirmed the pattern where China’s diplomacy tended to garner unfavourable perception in the West, compared to the positive reception from developing countries in East Asia.

The roundtable successfully concluded with a brief discussion of alternatives for an enhanced South Korea-Japan dialogue. Among the key points raised during the discussion are the promising areas for cooperation between Japan and South Korea despite existing antagonistic relations, the hurdles to these opportunities and ways to mitigate these hurdles. Indeed, persistent ontological tensions surrounding wartime issues and negative perceptions are difficult to solve. Yet, with the changing global and East Asian geopolitical landscape, strategic necessity and shared commitment to the stability of the region might eventually prevail in carving the future of South Korea-Japan relations.

Dr Carmina Untalan
IAFOR Research Centre, Osaka School of International Public Policy, Osaka University, Japan

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