Meetings between South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and U.S. President Barack Obama at the nuclear security summit in The Hague this week come at a particularly opportune time. For President Obama, it is a chance to personally reaffirm the commitment of the United States to its East Asian allies and actively engage in the management of vitally important and delicate alliance relations. For Prime Minister Abe and President Park, it represents a critical opportunity to begin to restore relations and attempt to reconcile the damage done by Abe's recent rhetoric and behavior, which has been widely perceived (and condemned) as overtly nationalistic and provocative and has clearly rekindled old resentments in South Korea. This division between America's two strongest Asian allies undermines U.S. strategic objectives in the region, and benefits one primary regional and global player: China.
Japan and South Korea should be natural allies, confronting the long-term rise China and the persistent, but highly unpredictable threat posed by North Korea. Moreover, with advanced market economies, consolidated democratic institutions and longstanding relations with the United States, the two Asian powers share many ideas, values and world views. Yet the troubled history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries remains a major impediment to "normal" relations between Japan and South Korea. After decades of increasing influence on the peninsula, Japan made Korea a protectorate at the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, and then formally annexed Korea in 1910. Korea remained under Japan's control until the end of the Second World War.
The legacy of Japan's occupation of Korea remains an open wound. Imperial Japan's use of forced labor and forced prostitution (so-called "comfort women") from Korea during the war continues to stain the relationship between the two states. Moreover, there is a prevailing view that Tokyo has never adequately reconciled with South Korea for crimes committed during the Imperial period, and has even sought to obstruct various investigations. Official Japanese apologies made in the 1990s have had a limited impact at best.
Abe's return to power in Tokyo has been marked with increasingly nationalist rhetoric and a harder line foreign policy directed primarily at China. However, in Seoul and other regional capitals, where memories of Japanese Imperial aggression remain highly salient, any perceived move away from post-War Japan's formal disavowal of the use of military force and commitment to collective self-defense immediately sparks concern. More importantly, Abe's highly controversial visit to the Yasukumi Shrine, which commemorates Japan's war dead, but also houses the remains of several war criminals, reflected a gross insensitivity -- if not antipathy -- for those concerns and has undermined Japan's standing in East Asia.
The net result is that despite China's employment of an "assertive" posture in relations with its neighbors concerning territorial disputes, fears of a resurgent Japan have allowed Beijing to shift the spotlight away from its own highly provocative behavior. Perhaps seeing an opportunity, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has also promised to take a firmer stance with regard to North Korea and its nuclear program, dampening South Korean frustrations with prior Chinese unwillingness to exert more pressure on its erratic client state and opening the door for greater cooperation between Beijing and Seoul that builds upon already-extensive trade relations.
It has been all too easy for China to shift the focus to Japan's behavior. Prime Minister Abe's policies have seemingly sparked a backlash against Japan and stoked fears of a resurgent Japanese militarism. The reality is much less threatening, but China has seized on the opportunity launching its own propaganda campaign in the editorial pages of newspapers all over the world to argue that this new activist Japan has forgotten its tragic past and is the real root of regional problems.
U.S. policy should work vigorously, but quietly, to reconcile the differences between South Korea and Japan with a goal of enhancing formal defense cooperation to effectively address existing and emerging regional threats. A strong, unified trilateral East Asian alliance will serve as a robust hedge against future Chinese provocation while at the same time allowing for Beijing's constructive participation in the management of the ongoing challenge of North Korea, the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, and the maintenance of peace, security and prosperity of a dynamic and vitally important region.