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Japan-Korea alliance aims to ward off Chinese dragon

A ‘containment’ alliance is taking shape under US guidance, but a less confrontational approach exists to resolve issues
US President Joe Biden (center) sits with South Korea's President Yoon Suk-Yeol (left) and Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (right) during a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit at the Ifema Congress Center in Madrid, on June 29, 2022

US President Joe Biden (center) sits with South Korea's President Yoon Suk-Yeol (left) and Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (right) during a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit at the Ifema Congress Center in Madrid, on June 29, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 24, 2023 11:44 AM GMT
Updated: March 24, 2023 11:44 AM GMT

The East China Sea has been a source of tension and dispute for many years with China claiming ownership of a number of islands and other territories in the region. This has inevitably led to conflicts with neighboring countries, including Japan and South Korea, who also have claims to these territories.

One of the most significant challenges is the ongoing dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. These islands are located between Japan and Taiwan and have been claimed by both Japan and China for many years. But recently China has become increasingly assertive in its claims, sending warships and aircraft into the disputed waters and engaging in confrontations with Japanese vessels.

But this dispute is not just about the islands themselves, but about the surrounding waters, which are rich in natural resources, including oil and gas. This underwater treasure has fueled a race between China and Japan to explore and exploit these resources, further exacerbating tensions in the region. 

The absence of a well-defined legal framework for resolving this territorial dispute is what makes it difficult to reach a solution. Despite the fact that there are international agreements indicating who owns which islands and territory, these are frequently subject to interpretations that tend to be skewed towards self-serving interests.

As a result, the regional nations are left to negotiate directly with one another, which can be a slow and challenging process, particularly when there are significant historical and cultural differences between the parties as in this case.

Also, it doesn’t help ease the tension as demonstrated during the recent meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart

Vladimir Putin who has signed a strategic partnership agreement with the Chinese leader emphasized Beijing's commitment to promoting a peaceful settlement of the Ukraine conflict. As this partnership is also looking at the East, where, it is almost always forgotten, China and Russia have been conducting joint live-fire naval exercises.

The latest one included joint missile and artillery firing against air targets, artillery firing against sea targets, and practicing joint anti-submarine warfare with practical use of weapons. The exercise came after Japan revealed its intention of increasing its defense budget and the will to acquire long-range weapons, citing increasing threats to its security, with China and Russia among the greatest threats.

But while China condemns the military strengthening of Japan, on the other hand, it has been rapidly expanding its own military capabilities, including building up its naval and air forces and developing advanced weapons systems.

It doesn’t sound surprising then if Japan and South Korea have also been recently intensifying their diplomatic relations after years of unfriendly tones and mutual bickering.

As of today, the news is that both countries have dropped export claims against each other. Japan has lifted export controls on three key semiconductor materials and South Korea has dropped a complaint with the World Trade Organization over these curbs. These moves come as part of their effort to improve ties, following a recent summit between their leaders.

The two countries are also discussing restoring each others' trade status, and the South Korean trade ministry plans to revise export regulations to restore Japan's status as a favored trade destination.

These are major and quick diplomatic improvements and an unmistakable sign that a “China containment” alliance is taking shape in the Far East under the guidance of the US.

But we can’t forget that there have also been several initiatives to strengthen diplomatic ties between China and Japan in recent years, including high-level talks between the leaders of the two nations. Last year during a meeting with Prime Minister Kishida, President Xi mentioned the 50th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral relations between the two nations.

China and Japan are in fact very close neighbors, much more than they both are with the United States and therefore share a wide range of common interests and opportunities for collaboration and future mutual prosperity.

Not to mention that Chinese tourists alone — before the pandemic — represented more than a third of the total consumption by foreigners visiting Japan, which is almost 2 trillion yen (US$15.3 billion).

There is therefore, at least theoretically, plenty of rewards to gain from a collaborative effort from both sides to find a peaceful and long-lasting solution to their long-standing disputes.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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