Can the US mediate successfully in Japan-South Korea trade dispute?

By Ling Shengli Source:Global Times Published: 2019/7/29 21:32:46

Photo: IC

The trade row is raging between Japan and South Korea, two major US allies in Northeast Asia. 

Foreign Policy magazine reported July 1 that "Japan announced that it would restrict the export to South Korea of three chemicals that are used to make semiconductors and flat screens - key components of smartphones and other advanced technology," which seriously affected South Korea's economic security. For this reason, South Korea had to seek mediation from the US, hoping to ease the bitter spat with Japan. However, given the complex historical issues and realistic interests between these two countries, it is uncertain whether the US will successfully mediate the trade friction between them. Worse, the deteriorating Tokyo-Seoul relationship will weaken the cohesion of the US alliance in the Asia-Pacific region and affect the implementation of any US regional strategy. 

Tension between Japan and South Korea has been lingering for some time. Leaders of these two countries even failed to resolve their conflict during the G20 Summit in Osaka in June. After the summit, Japan escalated the tension through carrying out sanctions against South Korea. From July 10 to 14, Kim Hyun-chong, deputy director of the National Security Office of the Blue House and former minister of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy of South Korea, visited the US for support. At the request of South Korea, US President Donald Trump said he was ready to help. From July 20 to 24, US National Security Adviser John Bolton visited Japan and South Korea amid rising tension to mediate trade disputes between the two. From July 23 to 27, South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee paid a visit to the US to further seek "Washington's support and mediation in Seoul's fight against export controls by Japan," reported The Korea Herald.

Although Japan-South Korea trade friction has little impact on US economic interests, the impact on the US Asia-Pacific strategy should not be underestimated. The US is more worried about the cohesion of its alliance in the region, which will be impacted by deteriorating Japan-South Korea relations. Especially in Northeast Asia, the discord between these two countries will weaken the US presence in this region and influence the implementation of US strategies.

Whether Washington can successfully ease tensions in the economic dispute between two of its biggest allies in Asia is actually an important test of its ability to manage alliances. 

If the US succeeds, it shows that Washington's prestige remains unchanged. Otherwise, the prestige among its allies will be in crisis. In the Asia-Pacific region, it is believed that a so-called dual leadership structure has been emerging in recent years - regional countries have been depending on China economically while on the US when it comes to security. The situation also applies to some US allies in the region. It led to the weakening of US management of its allies, especially in the economic field. For instance, US allies, including South Korea and Australia, have joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank regardless of US dissuasion.

That being said, it will be difficult for the US to mediate the trade dispute between Japan and South Korea this time. It will mainly depend on whether Japan and South Korea take the US seriously enough. Otherwise, the US will find it lack strong means to force both sides to make concessions. 

Trade frictions involve the interests of industries and people in the countries and the Japan and South Korea's governments face pressures from public opinion on both sides. Even when it comes to the US' own trade frictions with Japan and South Korea, negotiations can take a long time before agreements are reached.

South Korea and Japan are close neighbors and allies of the US, but relations between them have been volatile for a long time. Historical grievances, island disputes and trade frictions have led to insufficient mutual political trust between the two sides. The South Korean government is often forced to adjust its policy toward Japan in response to anti-Japanese sentiment at home. This trade dispute between Japan and South Korea is actually triggered by historical problems and it is difficult to rule out whether those problems will be reemphasized in the future. 

South Korea has pinned hope on US mediation, but it's unclear whether Japan will show due respect for the US. If the US fails this time, it will lose trust from its allies. Its own prestige will be largely weakened. Washington's strategic implementation in Northeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region is likely to be greatly compromised.

The author is secretary-general of the international security study center at China Foreign Affairs University.


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