South Korea and Japan softening their traditional rivalry do not bring good news for China as it tries to face challenges in the East China Sea posed by the US and its allies.While South Korea tried to balance its relations between the US and China until now, the new developments suggest it is inching toward the anti-China coalition. Both South Korea and Japan are working on issues to resolve all disputes and strengthen their ties in the wake of threats from North Korea and China. This however boosts the US-led anti-China alliance, obstructing Beijing in growing its influence in the Indo- Pacific.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is working to improve bilateral relations with Japan. Both countries are improving intelligence sharing and ending the dispute over raw material use, as both countries are worried about threats from North Korea and China.1Both countries face threats of nuclear and missile attacks from North Korea.Also, the US is focused on conflicts in Ukraine and in the Taiwan Strait, so both countries felt the need to come together to deal with China.2China is perceived as more of an economic and security threat than a partner.
Japan is taking China’s threat seriously after Beijing resorted to military aggression. Beijing sent warships to the Senkaku islands, which are under Japanese control, claiming to be its territory.3 It also launched ballistic missiles that landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone near Okinawa Prefecture.4Polls suggest China’s unpopularity in South Korea has been increasing every year.5 They criticised Beijing’s bullying tactics and interference in South Korea’s security policies. Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo in an editorial said “Seoul must not yield to Chinese bullying. China has no qualms about ignoring North Korea’s belligerence, but is quick to interfere with South Korea’s security interests.”
China used to be the biggest export destination for these countries. However, with Beijing’s focus on boosting domestic production, South Korea and Japan find the Chinese market less lucrative and more competitive.67“South Korea needs to go with Japan rather than China now as the two share the US as a security ally at a time economic and security interests are no longer separated,”said Lee Hong-Bae, a professor of international trade at Busan-based Dong-eui University.8
South Korea, the US and Japan held a trilateral Economic Security Dialogue recently, with a focus on strengthening the resilience of supply chains and developing technology and improving crisis response capabilities.9Strong South Korea- Japan relations would weaken the China-centric supply chain for high-tech products. With cooperation with the US and Japan, South Korea can reorganise its supply chain. While Beijing is opposing South Korea’s siding with the US, it would not take punitive action, fearing Seoul may go closer to the US-led group.10
While South Korea tried to maintain ambiguity on the Taiwan issue, it has given an indication of siding with the US if the need arises.11In 2021, the then President Moon Jae-in had spoken importance of “preserving peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits.”12Japan has extended its support to the US on the issue of the Taiwan Strait conflict. It is even readying itself for an armed conflict with China. If Taiwan goes under Chinese control, the southwestern part of Japan, the Senkaku Islands and its vital shipping routes will become vulnerable and indefensible.13
South Korea and Japan joining the anti-China coalition would help counter Chinese threats in the East China Sea and its growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. “At a critical time, this breakthrough serves as another example of how the web of like-minded alliances and partnerships in the region is tightening in the face of regional threats,” said Christopher Johnstone, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 14Things are working in that direction. Japan and South Korea are working on rapprochement by taking brave steps to step toward resolving a long-festering, historical dispute.15“I believe we must end the vicious cycle of mutual hostility and work together to seek our two countries’ common interests,” Yoon said.