The geopolitics in Northeast Asia is changing swiftly having the potential to shatter the geopolitical and security balance in favour of rogue North Korea and expansionist China. North Korea’s continued testing of patience of the regional powers by its nuclear and missile programmes has already kept the countries in the region on their toes. The growing tensions between Japan and South Korea are detrimental to the raised apprehensions. This has the potential to shift regional security balance.

The normalisation of the relations between Japan and South Korea in 1965 failed to smooth out even after Japan formally apologised for its colonial exploitation of South Korea. Japan even offered financial compensation to the comfort women — the sex slaves and forced labour used during the World War II. The financial compensation does not heal the psychological wounds of the colonial past. However, it certainly is important; but in a situation where colonial wrong has been committed, it must accompany a sense of remorse and compassion.

Japan and South Korea over the years have maintained economic, cultural and security relation isolated from the historical baggage. The relationship has seen a surge in mutually beneficial sectors, tourism, student exchange programmes among others. The recent crisis in relation between the two flared in July when Japan unilaterally imposed a ban on the import of three chemicals crucial to the semiconductor industry of South Korea. The export-driven economy, led by technological giants Samsung, SK Hynix and LG Electronics, relies heavily on the chemicals imported from Japan. In addition, Japan removed South Korea from the ‘white list’ of trade partners having preferential trade status. South Korea responded in kind, terminating its military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan. Following that, it undertook biannual military exercise on its eastern coast where a set of islets is claimed by both countries. The exercise involved passing of a number of navy and coast guard ships in the region. This was to demonstrate its control over the islets which is a source of territorial dispute between the two. This may prove harmful to the regional security dynamics, with the building of nuclear capabilities by North Korea and expansionist China trying to destabilise the region. As a result of this dispute, China can unabatedly continue its manoeuvring in the South and East China Sea. 

Japan and South Korea are large exporters of memory chips and smartphone displays. Therefore, the escalation of the dispute could be bad news for the global technological industry. This will also disturb the global economic sentiment which is already facing the brunt of trade wars between the USA and rest of the world. The rise in price of semiconductors will fall on consumers, if South Korean manufactures cut production. 

In this bilateral bickering South Korea has much to lose. Its security in the region is strongly tied to its alliance with Japan and the USA. To effectively engage Pyongyang and Beijing, South Korea not only relies on its capabilities but also on its security alliance with Japan and the USA. Japan also needs South Korean cooperation to check China’s quest for hegemony in the region. At a time when the United States has raised concerns around China-based technology companies and the need for stronger cooperation between its partners, in response to the rise of China and North Korea’s nuclear programme, it is confronted with this bilateral squabble. Japan−South Korea dispute will create a space in the market for Chinese state-backed firms to establish themselves as potential players to step in to fill any shortfall in the supply of tech parts. 

The United States should be concerned with the growing tensions as the crisis has the potential to jeopardise its strategic interests in the region of engaging with North Korea and checking its nuclear build up and China’s expansion. The dispute between its allies in the Far East will also increase the risk to the US forces stationed in the region. The USA should encourage its Asian allies to compromise and diffuse the crisis having the potential to disturb the geopolitics of the region and global economic sentiments. 

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research


Gazi Hassan
Gazi Hassan
Gazi Hassan is Senior Research Associate at the CPPR Centre for Strategic Studies. He can be contacted on email at gazi@cppr.in and on twitter @gazihassan

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