April 24, 2014 12:00 am JST

US jittery over South Korea's tilt toward China

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei senior staff writer

South Korean President Park Geun-hye not only met the leaders of the U.S. and Japan, but also held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in The Hague last month. © Yonhap/Kyodo

TOKYO -- A recent flurry of diplomatic maneuvering by Washington underscores just how desperate the administration of President Barack Obama is to mend the frayed ties between Japan and South Korea.

     On March 25, Obama brought Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye to the same table on the sidelines of a conference in The Hague. It was the first meeting between the neighboring leaders since they came to office. On April 7, the U.S. arranged a three-way dialogue for the countries' foreign affairs officials in Washington. And the following week, it also hosted high-level trilateral defense talks in the capital.

     Why is the U.S. so keen to bring its key Asian allies closer? Officially, Washington says the North Korean threat is the main reason. U.S. officials have been stressing the importance of trilateral unity in dealing with Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. While there is no doubt truth to this, its biggest reason for playing peacemaker between Tokyo and Seoul is concern not about North Korea but China.

Policy directions

In late March, Japanese and U.S. policymakers and other experts held a closed-door meeting in Washington for two days to discuss the bilateral alliance. One of the issues that dominated their talks was the soured relationship between Tokyo and Seoul.

     During the meeting, the U.S. expressed support for Abe's assertive defense policies -- including his efforts to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense -- saying such steps will help strengthen the alliance. But at the same time, American participants repeatedly expressed concern about South Korea's growing wariness of what it sees as Japan's shift to the right. "We have trouble convincing (South Korea) that Japan's moves do not run counter to their interests," a U.S. participant said.

     At the meeting, delegates from the U.S. side stressed the importance of closer Japan-South Korea ties in the face of an increasingly provocative North Korea. On March 26, Pyongyang test-fired Rodong ballistic missiles, capable of reaching Japan, and warned that it would conduct further nuclear tests soon.

     But North Korean attempts at intimidation are nothing new. Clearly, there must be more to the Obama administration's push to bring Tokyo and Seoul closer.

     Several U.S. officials have said that while North Korea poses a serious security threat, the country's conventional military power is declining and the South Korean military and U.S. forces stationed in the South are enough to keep the regime in check. What Washington fears most, they say, is that China will use the escalating tensions between Tokyo and Seoul to increase its influence over the Korean Peninsula.

     A former senior official close to the Obama administration said the Chinese regime under President Xi Jinping is "trying to draw South Korea to its side at an alarming rate" by leveraging the country's disputes with Japan over history. "If we do nothing, South Korea will be ripped away (from the U.S. and Japan) and placed in China's sphere of influence," he said. "It is this development that worries the Obama administration."

Balance of power

The U.S. is trying to cope with a rising China through its bilateral alliances with Japan, Australia and South Korea. It fears that if South Korea tips toward China, one of the three pillars of regional stability will be knocked loose. It could also hamper the future operations of its military forces in South Korea.

     The potential impact does not stop there. During the Korean War in the 1950s, tens of thousands of U.S. forces died while protecting South Korea from North Korean and Chinese forces that had advanced beyond the 38th parallel. Emotions tied to that conflict run deep among Americans. After making such a costly sacrifice, they will not simply stand by and watch South Korea join the "China club."

     In recent months, the Obama administration has repeatedly warned the South Korean leadership not to be tempted to form an anti-Japanese front with China, saying "do not choose the wrong side,"  U.S. and South Korean diplomatic sources say.

     There are, of course, points of contention between China and South Korea. China's growing military strength, for example, is making South Korea nervous. The countries are also at odds over a historical issue concerning the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, which China claims was founded by Chinese, not Koreans. 

     Still, these factors are not enough to assuage Washington's concerns. "The more South Korea relies on China economically, the deeper their ties will grow," said a U.S. military strategy expert.