Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.08.06

The 'Chinese Union' and the Korean Peninsula

the japan times on July 30, 2019
Unless a diplomatic genius appears out of the blue and solve this small but serious spat between Tokyo and Seoul, the two neighbors may have to reach an extreme end of their game of chicken.

On July 24, Queen Elizabeth II accepted Theresa May's resignation and appointed Boris Johnson as prime minister of the United Kingdom. Johnson, the hardline Brexiteer, seems adamant in trying to leave the European Union, even without any agreement, by Oct. 31. I wish him a good luck in making his dream come true.

I say so because the British, like the Japanese, do not essentially belong to the continent. Our ancestors may have come from the opposite side of the straits that divide our small islands and the huge continents. We may have some domestic discrepancies but our cultures have been and will continue to be maritime.

I have been telling my British and continental European friends that Japan and the U.K. share similar national strategies: namely, to maintain the balance of power on the continent, to keep healthy distance from continental affairs and, finally, to secure sea lines of communication to maximize our national interests.

East Eurasia, however, is different from the European continent. The former is much larger but more united, while the latter is smaller but divided. How many nations are there on the European continent? More than 30, and 26 in the continental European Union alone. How many languages? More than 30 and 22 in the continental EU alone.

Continental Northeast Asia, on the contrary, is much more homogeneous. Nearly 1.4 billion speak one language, Chinese, while 76 million speak Korean and only 3 million speak Mongolian. The Chinese dominance is overwhelming in that part of the world, even if you include the far eastern part of Russia.

In addition, continental China is politically united under the government of the Chinese Communist Party, no matter how authoritarian and dictatorial it may be.

If you wish to call the loose coordination among 28 British and continental European countries a European Union, China is already a "Chinese Union" in the East Asia region.

If Johnson wants the U.K. to depart from EU, he has my full spiritual support because Japan by no means is part of the Chinese Union either. The history of East Asia is a history of the rises and falls of the Chinese Empire, and historically in Northeast Asia only the Koreans and Japanese did not become part of this great empire.

While Boris the Brexiteer faces the EU, Tokyo faces the CU. The CU is much more formidable than the EU and is still expanding economically, politically and, of course, militarily not only in the East Asia region but also globally. I cannot think of any equivalent of China on the European continent.

If you share this unconventional thought of mine, you will also find that there is no equivalent of the Korean Peninsula on the European continent. The Koreas are continental, but not a part of the CU. Historically the Koreans have never conquered the heart of China, while their fellow Mongolians and Manchurians have done so.

On Sunday morning I appeared on NHK TV's "Sunday Debate" program to discuss current international affairs. The main topic was, of course, the ongoing Tokyo-Seoul spat on Japan's tightening of its export control for South Korea. I told viewers at the beginning of the program that the essence of the issue was not export control.

This issue, I continued, must be looked into from a global perspective. While the Japanese measures -- fully consistent with World Trade Organization rules and with compelling reasons -- are just and reasonable, the hard-core issue is that the foreign policy of South Korea has started to shift from a Cold War "pivot" alliance to traditional "balancing" diplomacy.

What is happening now in Northeast Asia is the transformation of the postwar multilateral Cold War regime involving China, Russia, Japan and the United States. South Korea for good reasons tries to be the real owner of Korean history while being trapped in the middle of the U.S.-China hegemonic rivalry.

Seen from Tokyo, the Korean Peninsula is now becoming up for grabs for major powers and the Koreans -- North and South alike -- seem to be trying to regain their national identity with much closer ties with China at the expense of the existing bilateral relations with the U.S. and Japan.

The Japanese export control measures announced July 1 are meant to cope with this new multilateral geopolitical reality in Northeast Asia. In this sense, Tokyo's tightening of export controls should not be considered as a simple retaliation in the bilateral context against the anti-Japanese policies of South Korea.

One of the participants on the Sunday program rebutted my argument, saying that while maintaining good relations with both the U.S. and Japan, South Korea will and must improve relations with China and North Korea. To this rebuttal I replied, "South Korea cannot enjoy both at the same time."

Of course, he was not convinced. That, however, was not a problem. The real problem is that both Tokyo and Seoul don't seem to be flexible enough to be able to stop their game of chicken for the foreseeable future. This week Japan is expected to apply export control measures that will treat South Korea just like any other ordinary nation.

Unless a diplomatic genius appears out of the blue and solve this small but serious spat between Tokyo and Seoul, the two neighbors may have to reach an extreme end of their game of chicken. Washington cannot mediate, even if it wishes to, between its two most important allies in East Asia. The issue must be solved bilaterally.

Balancing relations will not win the trust of your friends. You need to show your sincerity not only by words but also with deeds. I sincerely hope that my South Korean and Japanese friends understand my perspective. Prioritizing bilateral arguments over multilateral strategic judgments will have consequences, whether you like it or not.