[Column] Has Korea, too, crossed the Rubicon on China?

Posted on : 2024-04-19 18:00 KST Modified on : 2024-04-19 18:12 KST
As Japan upgrades its alliance with the US, it’s more important than ever that South Korea seek balance in its diplomacy
US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga walk through the Colonnade to take part in a joint press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 16, 2021. (AFP/Yonhap News)
US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga walk through the Colonnade to take part in a joint press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 16, 2021. (AFP/Yonhap News)

By Gil Yun-hyung, editorial writer

This is embarrassing to admit, but I wasn’t aware of how deeply connected the Taiwan situation is to the lives of ordinary Koreans until around three years ago, in 2021. On April 16 of that year, the administrations of US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga released a joint statement saying, “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” The statement stirred the Japanese press into a frenzy. People couldn’t stop talking about how it was the first statement to mention Taiwan in 52 years. 

Curious, I looked into it. US President Richard Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Sato Eisaku released a similar statement in November 1969, just a few years before the US returned control over Okinawa to Japan in May 1972.

Why did the leaders of the US and Japan directly mention Taiwan — as well as the Korean Peninsula — half a century ago? This was at the height of the Vietnam War. Taiwanese President Chiang Kai-shek and South Korean President Park Chung-hee were worried about the US defensive posture in the region being weakened once Washington relinquished control of Okinawa. Park even offered to let US troops use Jeju Island as a military base in an interview with the Washington Post on June 1 of that year. 

The end of the Cold War made me forget for a while, but China has the potential to gain maritime access to Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula and Okinawa Prefecture. In a sense, all three regions are in the same boat when it comes to national security.

The April 18, 2021, edition of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper ran a short interview with former Vice Foreign Minister Yukio Takeuchi on the seventh page. After reading the interview, my realization quickly turned into fear.

This is what Takeuchi said:

“China’s challenge to the international order based on freedom and democracy is a problem for the entire international community. East Asia does not have an alliance like NATO. The significance of this summit is in its potential as a launch pad [for a NATO-like pact in East Asia based on the US-Japan alliance]. I wasn’t sure if Prime Minister Suga was prepared [to form such an alliance], but you could say that his recent statements regarding China were a crossing of the Rubicon. We can now expect retaliation from China. We need to be prepared and respond firmly.”

This statement shocked me enough to re-read the joint US-Japan statement.

“Japan resolved to bolster its own national defense capabilities to further strengthen the Alliance and regional security,” the statement read. Shortly afterward, influential Japanese politicians like Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso started asserting that a conflict in the Taiwan Strait would immediately lead to a conflict involving Japan. In that context, a change in the US-Japan alliance directly impacts the US-South Korea alliance.

In December 2022, the Japanese government revised three state documents regarding national defense. These revisions would allow the Japanese state to allocate 2% of its national GDP to the defense budget by the year 2027, effectively doubling the national defense budget in five years. As Takeuchi predicted, the US and Japan are cooperating on all fronts to formulate the framework for a NATO-like military alliance in East Asia. At Camp David in August of last year, the US moved to include South Korea in a trilateral alliance network. In November of last year, the leaders of the US, Japan and the Philippines held a summit in Washington, DC, where they criticized China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.

In a speech addressing the US Congress last week, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio emphasized that Japan was the US’ “global partner.” On April 11 and 12, the US, South Korea and Japan conducted joint naval exercises in the East China Sea, which is directly above Taiwan. According to press releases published by the US Indo-Pacific Command and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, the exercises involved large-scale anti-submarine drills and deployed the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier and three US destroyers, Japan’s Ariake-class destroyer, and South Korea’s ROKS Seoae Ryu Seong-ryong Aegis-equipped destroyer. On April 6 and 7, the US, Japan, the Philippines and Australia conducted joint exercises in the South China Sea. 

The US’ strategy is clear. The US-South Korea-Japan trilateral alliance will respond to a conflict in the Taiwan Strait while the quadrilateral alliance of the US, Japan, Australia and the Philippines will respond to any threats in the South China Sea. As the key ally backing up the US in the Indo-Pacific, Japan lies at the crux of this strategy. The US-Japan alliance is no longer just a slogan. It is now a military partnership with the ability to steer global affairs. It is also a sign that the US will make increasing demands of South Korea in the days to come.

In hindsight, it’s clear that Japan had been preparing itself to cross the Rubicon. At that point, Tokyo had already made a resolution. But what about Korea? Faced with such a colossal problem, the strategy of balanced foreign affairs and not rocking the boat are more important than ever. Yet the Yoon administration has unwittingly steered us in one direction. If we attempt to turn back now, the country will look foolish. Yet if we continue in our current trajectory, we’ll be torn apart. Between a rock and a hard place. The country is in a precarious situation.  

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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