Monday, April 2, 2007

Redefining the US-ROK relationship

How interesting that on the same day that the US and South Korea conclude a "landmark" trade agreement -- legislative approval in both countries pending -- the Yomiuri Shimbun runs an editorial looking at the impact of North Korea on the February agreement to dissolve the US-ROK Combined Forces Command, giving primary responsibility for the defense of South Korea to the South Korean military.

The point of this editorial is not concealed: "It is also important for Japan to observe contemporary developments in the US-Korean security arrangements [alliance]."

The editorial proceeds to spell out the details of the new division of labor between the allies -- but I don't think there's any question that a reader should read between the lines and transpose the new US-ROK arrangement onto the US-Japan alliance.

But leaving aside the question of a new division of labor in the US-Japan alliance, the US-ROK free-trade agreement, coming on the heels of the February agreement, is an important indicator of how the US position in Asia is changing. The old hub-and-spoke system, establishing in the early 1950s, meant that the US was the senior partner in a series of bilateral alliances. That system appears to be breaking down, in a haphazard way, on all fronts.

That changes provides the context for Australia and Japan talking directly to each other about security, without the US acting as an intermediary, and it provides the context for the new US-ROK relationship, of which the trade agreement is an indispensable part. The US increasingly has to deal with allies on more equal terms. This is a good thing, but it requires the US to change its habits in Asia; it needs to learn to see the region and the world through the eyes of its allies and partners. Arguably Japan, however, remains stuck in a relationship largely unchanged from the hub-and-spoke era, in part due to the lingering presence of the US Military in Japan -- and the clear subordination of the JSDF to the US Military.

I think this is what Nagashima Akihisa was talking about in his address last month in a plenary session of the Lower House of the Diet -- discussed in this post. Japan too needs to enter the post-hub-and-spoke era. The smooth execution of the May 2006 2 + 2 agreement on the realignment of US forces in Japan would have been one way to do it, but it's been almost a year and little progress, if any, has been made. Another way of transforming the US-Japan alliance, suggested in the second Armitage-Nye report, is forging a US-Japan FTA, which would be even more revolutionary than the US-Korea FTA (the biggest US trade agreement since NAFTA). But the political obstacles in both countries -- already formidable in the US-Korea negotiations -- would likely be insurmountable (FT subscription required) in negotiations between the US and Japan.

So for all the friction between the US and South Korea since the election of President Roh in 2002, the election of a more conservative -- read pro-American -- candidate in this year's ROK presidential election could well result in a renaissance in the US-South Korea relationship, based on steps taken to build a more equal partnership. Getting to that point with Japan, however, seems to remain a distant goal.

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