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China and Ukraine force their rivals Japan and South Korea to rethink


May 21, 2023

The former (a member of the G7) has invited the latter as his guest at 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 sake and beer talks.

This was a big problem. These were the first formal meetings of his in more than a decade, beginning the process of resolving the bitterness of the Japanese colonial occupation of South Korea between 1910 and 1945.

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

At a trilateral meeting of the G7 summit, Biden invited Yoon and Kishida to another meeting in Washington, a senior US 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 missile and nuclear 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. He ruffled feathers in Beijing with his decision to deploy Patriot missile batteries to islands near Taiwan. And he is even considering opening a NATO liaison office, Koji Tomita, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, said last week, a small but symbolically significant gesture of Western solidarity.

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

That prompted Washington to announce a new defense pact with the Seoul government, which included sending nuclear-capable submarines to the country, as long as it reaffirmed its promise not to seek nuclear weapons of its own.

South Korea is heavily dependent on China for trade, so it has historically been careful about how it treats its giant neighbor. But relations between the two have soured of late, particularly after South Korean President Yoon suggested that China was trying to «change the status quo by force» in Taiwan. This prompted a tit-for-tat ambassadorial summons, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry calling the comments «misguided» and «totally unacceptable.»

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

Simon Chelton, a former British defense attaché in Tokyo, said it would be a mistake to attribute developments solely to concerns about China, North Korea’s missile tests or US incitement for years, if not decades.

“The reason Japan is now increasing spending is not a knee-jerk reaction to what Biden says, 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 simply as an excuse for Japan and South Korea to follow the US line of 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 US allies for raising the risk of «bloc confrontation in the region» and undermining «the already fragile mutual trust» between them and Beijing.

The state-run Xinhua news agency wrote on the same day that «the United States has been trying to assemble an anti-China cabal for a long time,» describing the alliance as «a plot.»

Many experts agree that the trio’s strengthening is partly motivated by China, and with good reason.

«China’s military modernization over the past two decades, involving double-digit annual increases in military spending, combined with increased assertiveness over China’s disputed territorial claims, raises concerns about Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions,» Kingston said. , from Temple University.

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