A confrontational US approach toward China, moreover, would imply an additional destabilizing factor: Japan might become much bolder than necessary in its foreign policy. After Wilhelm II stopped engaging Russia in the 1890s, bilateral relations worsened, which provided his ally, Austria, diplomatic carte blanche in dealing with Serbia — and, more importantly, Serbia’s Russian patron. Thus, Wilhelm unintentionally contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914.
There are already some worrying signs of a Japanese miscalculation. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly said that he was considering renouncing the Kono Statement of 1993, which acknowledged that the Japanese military had raped and enslaved Asian and European women during World War II. If Abe does so, Japan’s relations with South Korea and China will suffer serious damage.
That is in no one’s interest, including Japan’s, given that the Japanese share many security concerns with South Korea, so US diplomacy will need to be dexterous. It must ease Japan’s sense of insecurity in the wake of China’s rise, while persuading Japan’s new leaders to behave prudently and refrain from excessively nationalist behavior. Frankly, with two decades of economic stagnation already behind it, Japan has more important matters to pursue.
In contrast to its multilateral efforts in Europe, the US created a hub-and-spoke security framework — formed by US-centered bilateral alliances — in Asia following World War II. One result is that no direct channel for security cooperation among Asian countries was ever established, which has contributed to the low level of trust in East Asia, even among close US allies like Japan and South Korea. And it is precisely here that South Korea, a medium-sized ally of the US, will be in a better position than Northeast Asia’s bigger powers to act as a facilitator.
There is much to learn from the diplomatic failures that led to World War I. A new history by Christopher Clark of the diplomatic prelude to that war is called, fittingly, The Sleepwalkers. The question for the US and East Asia’s leaders today is whether they will wake up and develop effective multilateral mechanisms for security cooperation before doing themselves serious harm.
Yoon Young-kwan was South Korean foreign minister from 2003 to 2004 and is now a professor of international relations at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the Free University of Berlin.
Copyright: Project Syndicate