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Strengthening Japanese-South Korean ties: A pivotal step for Asia-Pacific’s liberal democracies

In this opinion piece, Simone Galimberti argues that despite historical animosity, the inevitability of geography and geopolitics could drive South Korea and Japan towards stronger ties.

Their common goals, engaging constructively with China and strengthening alliances, might be achieved through innovative collaborations. If successful, it could reshape the geopolitical landscape of the Asia Pacific.



by Simone Galimberti

The recent announcement by the White House that United States President Joe Biden will host Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on 18 August, offers another opportunity to boost the rapprochement process between the two East Asian nations.

Though historically rivals, they both benefit from American security.

Most important, they are destined by geography and geopolitics to work together at a much bigger scale than what their current stable but also shaky relationship allows.

A common approach to regional issues could do the trick and bring Soul and Tokyo much closer.

The summit at Camp David will happen amid a rise of new bilateral and multilateral initiatives focused on bringing liberal democracies of the Asia Pacific closer together.

The much-talked QUAD is just one example among many.

Another instance of such diplomacy is the Japan-Australia-New Zealand and South Korea Meeting that was held in Vilnius on the sideline of the recent NATO summit.

Even Canada has been considering ways to promote stronger relationships with like-minded nations in the Asia Pacific.

These efforts are destined to become increasingly vital tools of policy coordination, primarily on trade, economy and on finding common stances on the elephant in the room, China.

At the same time, all of these undertakings, including the QUAD, are still at their infancy, very informal in nature and lacking any institutional structure like common secretariats.

Yet, potentially this phase of enhanced “teams-building” could also become not only instrumental but also an indispensable instrument for joint projection of foreign affairs, especially while dealing with common partners within the Asia Pacific region.

This is going to be especially strategic for all these nations that, while reliant on the Americans for their collective security, have already also well-established relationships in South East Asia and in the Pacific.

The fact that the USA will always have a strong presence in the region and will always have a key interest in remaining the fulcrum of this network of liberal democracies with vital interests in the region does not preclude the emergence of autonomous but complementary mechanisms.

This is where the inevitability of future stronger relationships between South Korea and Japan can start taking shape.

It is certainly true that the two have a strong interest in furthering, nourishing and investing in already strategic relationships with like-minded nations beyond Washington.

It is also a fact that there is still distrust and a certain level of animosity between the two.

Yet both nations have common goals in the field of foreign policy: strengthen their outreach with like-minded countries and deal, as far as possible, constructively with Beijing.

Particular prominence from both Seoul and Tokyo has been given to boost the partnerships with Canberra, Wellington and Ottawa and also with Brussels and the capitals of the so-called “Team Europe”.

But both South Korea and Japan could find much greater new commonalities and an expanded space for their bilateral relationship if they start working on a limited array of joint foreign policy initiatives.

South East Asia and the Pacific could both offer the theatres for an ambitious and far-sighted approach that would gradually evolve.

Both nations have strong bilateral cooperation, especially with ASEAN. Still, they have a strategic interest also in the wider Pacific that, as we know, is turning into a more strategic and contentious space.

It is in these two geographical regions where Japan and Korea could spearhead, with a good dose of creativity, new joint actions.

With initially soft activities acting as confidence-building measures, the two nations could progressively focus on common financing and even joint consultations with external partners, a step that, while now imaginable, would be truly groundbreaking.

Starting from people-to-people diplomacy, Tokyo and Seoul could come up with an ambitious joint scholarship targeting both students from ASEAN nations and from the member nations of the Pacific Islands Forum.

In the case of ASEAN, such a scheme could build on the work done by the EU through the EU-ASEAN SHARE program that is aimed at building a regional higher education system.

In the case of ASEAN, joint initiatives could be funded through the ASEAN Foundation or with a whole new entity targeting youths from Japan, South Korea and the all-member states of ASEAN.

The youths of small islands developing states in the Pacific would also hugely benefit from expanded opportunities where for example, again inspired by an EU program, the Erasmus Mundi program, could spend time studying both in South Korea and Japan.

These actions could be easily implemented.

Both President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida could instruct their respective foreign ministers and ministers focusing on education and youths’ affairs to create a bilateral working table to map out and study all the options.

Yet the real potential of this enhanced partnership in foreign affairs should be in areas like climate financing and green transition and overall economic development.

Also, in these cases, a gradual and cautious approach might be the most suitable to start with.

Both nations, for example, could take advantage of existing financing mechanisms like the Green Climate Fund based in Korea or the Green Environmental Facility.

They could come up with ad hoc partnerships with agencies and programs within the UN System to jointly fund development programs.

Overseas development assistance is often a jealously guarded area where nations, even those friendly with each other, tend to compete.

But the highest interest, in this case, the establishment of a peaceful, free and liberal Indo-Pacific, should prevail and convince both leaders of South Korea and Japan that a stronger joint approach to common regional interests is the only viable way forward for them.

Looking long terms, everyone already knows that, despite the ups and downs of their relationships, Berlin and Paris already offer a blueprint for stronger relationships between Tokyo and Soul.

Working together within the region might offer the best stepping stone for a truly new chapter in the bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea.

In the long term, they might even try in the Pacific with a joint consultative mechanism with the Pacific Island Forum, a template that could also be used for ASEAN.

In the latter case, the ASEAN Plus Three mechanism, the only mechanism where China, South Korea and Japan are working, at least nominally, together in the domain of international relations, must be preserved.

But a much more vigorous and close cooperation between Soul and Tokyo could really make a difference and be a game changer in the South East Asia, a region divided between democracies, even though imperfect ones and autocracies.

Attempting to build such a common vision would represent the first brick in a much broader and more ambitious regional architecture for those nations in the region that value democracy and human rights.

Definitely, it is a long-term project but one that might even be able to get the full endorsement of the people of the two nations, still wary, for historical reasons, of deepened ties.

It is surely a project that the Biden Administration could be interested in incentivizing.

After all, the Americans did it already once, when they promoted and invested in European integration in the aftermath of the second world war.

Now it might be really the time for liberal democracies in the Asia Pacific to truly come together.

After all, both geography and geopolitics are inevitable.

What is not inevitable is a relationship between two mature democracies that are unable to turn the page.

The initial uneasiness in both Tokyo and Seoul in coming to terms with their common destiny and accepting that their challenges are better addressed if dealt with together will be just a small and insignificant price to pay.

The good thing is that both Prime Minister Kishida and South Korean President Yoon know that.

The author writes on regional cooperation, democracy and human rights in the Asia Pacific.

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