US’s changing relationship with its Northeast Asian allies – for better and for worse

Updated On: Aug 15, 2006

US-Korea relations is certainly not at its peak now.

Since 2002, bilateral relations had been down. In an incident then, involving a United States military truck that killed two schoolgirls on a narrow country road, the driver’s acquittal by a court-martial led to weeks of anti-American protests. This incident became a major factor in the election of Roh Moo-hyun as President, who let it be known that he would not “kowtow” to Washington and would take a more independent stance in international affairs.

Fast forward it to 2006 and beyond. The United States is returning 59 military bases back to South Korea, which has complained that the returned bases have serious environmental violations. This has created another wave of anti-Americanism in South Korea, that has further impact the relations between US and South Korea.  According to a New York Times editorial, "China, too, is viewed more positively than it is by most of its other neighbors. By contrast, American motives tend to be suspect, and wicked Japan can do nothing right. (The Roh administration’s first reaction to the North’s missile tests was not to condemn Mr. Kim but to criticize Japan for making “such a fuss.”)"

South Korea’s current rocky relations with the US contrasts with US-Japan relations. The US is fully satisfied with Japan’s adherence to US worldviews and security concerns. U.S. President George W. Bush and Koizumi have created what they call the "best-ever" relationship. However, even the closest allies have their differences. U.S officials and experts agree that it would be better for Koizumi's successor to improve relations with China and South Korea, which have been strained due to Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. The debate over the Yasukuni Shrine seems to be striking a chord with some Washington notables. Former U.S. Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, said the U.S. should pursue "quiet" diplomacy to urge Japan to move beyond the Yasukuni issue.

The US is already trying to strike rapport with the candidates running to succeed Koizumi.  For efforts in this direction, the Bush administration has arranged an unprecedented number of meetings between its own key administration figures and Japanese Prime Ministerial candidates including Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Foreign Minister Taro Aso when they visited Washington over the past one year.

There seems to be confidence that the glowing US-Japan relations will persist. "I don't think there's any expectation of a drop-off after this prime minister leaves," an unnamed senior administration official said. Bush and Koizumi have set "a sort of new bar" for the two nations to cooperate around the world under "a sturdy foundation beneath that top-level friendship that's deeply rooted in sort of broadening common interests and common values," the official said.

While official bilateral relations are great, people to people relations between the two countries do not run in parallel. Sentiment against US bases is also running high.  Japan’s Kyodo news agency reports that although the heads of local governments around the Air Self-Defense Force Tsuiki Air Base in Fukuoka Prefecture have withdrawn their objections to the facility hosting U.S. fighter drills in line with a May Japan-U.S. accord, citizens strongly opposed and vowed to take action. Pressured by their own constituents, local politicians are demanding compensation. "We want compensation equal to that for a nuclear power plant," Chikujo Mayor Hisami Arakawa said.

"Our feelings remain unshaken," said Tatsuo Ikeda, the 77-year-old head of a group representing the communities in Yukuhashi in firm opposition to the US fighter exercises, at a July 21 meeting held by the municipal government. Ikeda also rejects a compromise of deploying Japanese escorts for the American airmen and jet fighters to make sure they obey the laws. "That will not work. Promises are cheap," Ikeda said. "In Okinawa, U.S. soldiers are committing crimes." His group threatens to eject Japan’s own fighters from using the airspace if the government persists with the US fighter drills. "We have fully cooperated with the [Japan’s] Air Self-Defense Force. If things go on at this rate, we will want the Air Self-Defense Force to leave."

While there is considerable focus on US’s relationship with Japan and Korean, Southeast Asian elites seem to think that Sino-US relations may be the most important for the region. Jusuf Wanandi, vice chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta argues that “the most important East Asian challenge for the future is the relationship between China and the U.S.; between an aspiring great power and the existing sole superpower.” He further noted that “for the time being, a proposal by former U.S. deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick that China become a major stakeholder in the international system could be the basis for a more stable relationship in the future between these two powers.”

He listed two conditions to make stable Sino-US relations possible: “One is on the Chinese side, namely that being a stakeholder means international responsibilities for China that it would have to live up to. The second is on the side of the U.S., the creator of the post-World War II international system and its institutions. The U.S. must allow China, which has accepted the system as a whole, also to adjust it partially in accord with its national interests.”


U.S. lauds Koizumi but hopes successor skips shrine (Japan Times, 12 August 2006)

Strategic developments in the Asia-Pacific region (Jakarta Post, 11 August 2006)

Here There Be Monsters (NY Times, 11 August 2006)

Residents don't want U.S. jets using Tsuiki base (Japan Times, 11 August 2006)