WASHINGTON – The increase in tensions between South Korea and Japan marks at least a temporary setback for the United States, which has sought to boost cooperation between its allies as part of its focus on Asia.
South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s unprecedented visit Friday to the resource-rich islets known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea prompted an infuriated Tokyo to recall its ambassador.
Relations between the two close U.S. allies are frequently rocky due to Korean resentment over Japan’s harsh 1910-1945 colonial rule, and friction is especially common in August due to sensitive anniversaries.
But the latest tensions represent a swift and substantial shift from just a few months ago, when U.S. officials hoped that Japan and South Korea had turned the page and that the three countries could increasingly work together.
The United States has encouraged better relations between its allies but steers clear of taking sides over the Sea of Japan islets, which are controlled by South Korea but claimed by Japan. Seoul calls the waters surrounding the islets the East Sea.
“We take no position on this territorial dispute. We want to see our two strong Pacific allies work this out together and work it out through consensus,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.
President Barack Obama has put a growing emphasis on Asia, where economies are expanding and an assertive China has concerned several neighbors. The United States, which stations more than 75,000 service members in Japan and South Korea, has been highlighting its military presence in Asia.
Among Asian leaders, Lee has developed one of the closest relationships with Obama. U.S. officials had repeatedly praised the former businessman for looking at the big picture in international affairs, including seeking to end rifts with the United States and Japan, since taking office in 2008.
In June, Lee’s administration had been set to sign a landmark agreement to share sensitive information between South Korea and Japan, the first military accord between the two countries.
But South Korea postponed the signing at the last minute, with both the ruling party and opposition parties concerned about public opposition. Presidential elections are due in December, although Lee can’t seek another term.
Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank, said the pact would have allowed Japan and South Korea to share information on the North Korean and Chinese militaries and helped in developing a U.S.-backed missile shield for the two allies.
“The flare-up of tensions between Seoul and Tokyo has national security repercussions for both countries as well as impeding U.S. security objectives in Asia,” he said.
Klingner said the United States should be careful not to take sides between Japan and South Korea and should find ways to encourage three-way cooperation.
The United States can increase military exercises involving all three countries and establish annual meetings of U.S., Japanese and South Korean foreign and defense ministers, similar to talks Washington now holds separately with each ally, Klingner said.
Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-South Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Lee’s trip to the disputed islands showed he was nearing the end of his presidency.
“With a diminishing sense of power may come a diminishing sense of responsibility on some of the issues, or at least a willingness to take into greater consideration the domestic political environment versus longer-term interests,” Snyder said.
He said the tensions could be short-lived, with the next South Korean president again seeking a fresh start with Japan.
“But the concern would be that actions could spill over and affect the tone of the relationship” after Lee leaves, he said.