Tensions in NE Asia affect the region as a whole
Asean should encourage Japan and South Korea to reconcile over territorial disputes and bitter history and provide a platform for dialogue
One area to watch as this new year gets underway is the ongoing fence-mending between Japan and South Korea. The relationship between the northeast Asian neighbours has been strained recently due to their dispute over the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands. Over the past two years their squabbling has been a major cause for concern for other countries in the region. Therefore if the two countries start a process to normalise their relationship, we should welcome it, though it will take a long time to work out any viable solution.
It is important that these countries move quickly to ameliorate their wounds. Prolonging the dispute would further endanger the broader stability and prosperity of the region. Adversarial attitudes have already caused serious damage to their mutual economic growth - more so than the authorities in either country would like to admit. Worst of all, their joint security cooperation with the US has created a dilemma, making it more difficult for the three parties to carry out any substantive activities in this field.
Washington has expressed concern that the quarrel between its two major allies in Asia could balloon into open conflict with no end in sight. But it seems that the new South Korean leader, President Park Guen-hye, knows the implications well. So she is moving quickly to improve ties with Japan, even though public alarm, worked up by outgoing president Lee Mueng-bak, is still high. Park has already received a special envoy to deliver a letter from Japan's new leader, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This was a welcome overture, given that Seoul has adamantly rejected such overtures in the past. In previous administrations, a tit-for-tat strategy characterised ties between the countries with no prospect for dialogue or improvement. Now that Park has shown her leadership qualities by responding positively, the two US allies can aim to improve their ties.
It is about time that Japan and South Korea made serious efforts overcome their unfortunate history. Otherwise tangible progress on bilateral ties could again be caught up in emotionally charged issues that date back to the wars of the last century and the era of colonial occupation. These issues will appear from time to time due to domestic turmoil.
President Lee left South Korea in a difficult position because it aligned with China over the island issue. This kind of Sino-Korean marriage of convenience could have had implications for the US's "re-balancing" effort in the region. South Korea warming to China could be a strategic hazard for the US and Japan, because it would affect the Korean Peninsula as a whole. Nationalism in China and South Korea could deepen the wounds inflicted long ago by Japan. No one in the region wants to see these wounds reopened so that they result in irreconcilable differences.
Meanwhile ASEAN needs to encourage both Japan and South Korea to work for better ties because the health of the ASEAN Economic Community will depend on their good relations. The Asean+3 initiative will not progress if enmity between the two continues. ASEAN must continue to provide a regional platform for Japan and South Korea to work out their differences, as in the past.