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Multilateral accord presents pitfall if alliances are missing

by Hisahiko Okazaki

During her visit to the United States in May, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said the following in her speech to the U.S. Congress: “Our journey extends beyond the Korean Peninsula to all of Northeast Asia where we must build a mechanism of peace and cooperation.

“Sadly, today the nations of this region fail to fulfill all that we can achieve collectively. That potential is tremendous.

“The region’s economies are gaining ever greater clout and becoming more and more interlinked. Yet, differences stemming from history are widening. It has been said that those who are blind to the past cannot see the future. … For where there is failure to acknowledge honestly what happened yesterday, there can be no tomorrow.

“Asia suffers from what I call ‘Asia’s paradox,’ the disconnect between growing economic interdependence on the one hand, and backward political, security cooperation on the other …

“And so I propose an initiative for peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia. We cannot afford to put off a multilateral dialogue process in Northeast Asia. …

“Together, the United States and other Northeast Asian partners could start with softer issues. These include environmental issues and disaster relief. … Trust will be built through this process. And that trust will propel us to expand the horizons of our cooperation. The initiative will serve the cause of peace and development in the region. But it will be firmly rooted in the [South] Korea-U.S. alliance.”

Park’s call for a multilateral dialogue in Northeast Asia was proposed not only in the U.S. She made practically the same statement in a key-note speech at Tsinghua University in Beijing during her state visit to China in June.

At first sight, Park’s statements may seem harmless and beneficial to the region. However, an extremely hazardous implication is hidden in her call for a multilateral consultative dialogue.

History is abundant with examples of pitfalls in multilateral consultative agreements. When asked what was the single most important cause of the Pacific War, I have always maintained that the abandonment of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was the foremost reason that inevitably led Japan to war.

As long as Japan maintained the Anglo-Japanese alliance, Emperor Showa and elder statesmen, such as Prince Kinmochi Saionji, as well as the Imperial Japanese Navy — all Anglophile at the time — would have consulted in advance in all matters with its big brother, Britain, thereby enabling it to follow a similar diplomatic path supported by Anglo-American cooperation. Saionji once said, “What Japan needs to do is to faithfully act in line with Britain and the United States.”

These words would certainly have prevailed if Japan had maintained the Anglo-Japanese alliance.

Needless to say, the 1931 Manchurian Incident was triggered by reckless Japanese military action that was difficult to restrain beforehand. However, if the Anglo-Japanese Alliance had been in existence, Emperor Showa and the elder statesmen would no doubt have accepted the Lytton Report of the League of Nations, which virtually acknowledged Japan’s supremacy over Manchuria. In fact, the Communist International criticized the Lytton Report as a product of compromise among the imperialist countries.

Yet, Japan refused to accept it and recognized the independence of Manchuria. If Japan had accepted this British-style compromise, the Japanese advance into mainland Asia would have stopped there. As history shows, it was a fatal mistake for Japan to terminate the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and replace it with the Four Power Treaty, a multilateral consultative agreement among Japan, Britain, the U.S. and France.

In his famous book “Diplomacy,” Henry Kissinger singularly took up this agreement, in what is otherwise a European-centered historical analysis, to bitterly criticize the Four Power Treaty, stating that the “failure to observe it [the treaty] would involve no consequence.”

Meanwhile, it must be added that Kijuro Shidehara, the Japanese negotiator, should not be the sole target of blame for having signed the Four Power Treaty. At the time, there was a global Wilsonian trend that viewed military alliances as something obsolete and evil, and sought an establishment of multilateral consultative agreements among nations.

In a similar vein, the Locarno Treaties were signed by countries including Britain, France, Germany and Italy. The treaties had no power whatsoever to prevent the eruption of World War II.

It was a heart-rending lesson of the 20th century to learn that only an alliance could guarantee the security of a nation. Even the U.S., chief advocate of the Wilsonian principle, shifted its course in the postwar period, concluding various military alliances across the globe, with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty as their mainstay.

In the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency, a proposal similar to that of Park was made, suggesting an expansion of the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program. Although the proposal was never presented in writing, it also carried dangerous implications.

The six-party talks are essentially a series of multilateral negotiations held intermittently in Beijing, presided over by China and attended by assistant secretary or director-general level delegates from Japan, China, the two Koreas, Russia and the U.S. for the purpose of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

The proposal suggested upgrading the level of the meetings to the foreign minister level and discussing comprehensive security problems in Northeast Asia, including, above all, historical-perception issues. The reason behind the proposal was similar to that of Park’s: Northeast Asia, where scars from World War II linger, has yet to establish a multilateral security cooperation framework like Europe’s.

Appalling! How can we have a constructive exchange of views on such issues as “comfort women” and Yasukuni Shrine in a meeting of six foreign ministers?

Fortunately, this proposal disappeared when U.S. Republicans lost the presidential election in the fall of 2008.

At the end of the Cold War, a highly respected American intellectual in the government once privately proposed terminating the U.S.-Japan alliance and replacing it with a multilateral consultative agreement among China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. I argued vehemently against it and asked him whether the U.S. wanted to repeat the same mistake that once pressed Japan to abolish the Anglo-Japanese alliance and replace it with the four-power consultative treaty.

Admittedly European countries successfully established a multilateral cooperation mechanism called CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) during the Cold War. The mechanism provided an important venue for dialogue between East and West, and still functions today.

What is noteworthy, though, is that the main Western nations such as Britain, France and Germany attach importance to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as the primary organization for ensuring security of the region, while giving CSCE a subsidiary role for dialogue. This framework for function-sharing has worked well up to this day.

This is the correct way to distinguish an alliance from a multilateral consultative arrangement. If South Korea wants to seek a multilateral agreement in Northeast Asia, it needs to establish first a trilateral framework for military cooperation among Japan, South Korea and the U.S. to meet the changes in the East Asian military balance attributable to rapidly growing Chinese military capabilities.

There are many things we could do to improve military cooperation among the three countries. First, South Korea needs to conclude the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan, which has been duly negotiated and agreed to between the two countries. It is preposterous to suggest a multilateral consultative arrangement without even signing the GSOMIA.

Fortunately, Park’s proposal has not received much attention, either from China or from the U.S. so far. We must not forget, however, that this kind of proposal once surfaced from the U.S. Therefore, should such a proposal arise again in the future, it is crucially important for Japan to point out the problem inherent in it at an early stage.

Hisahiko Okazaki is a former Japanese ambassador to Thailand. This is an English translation with some modifications of his article that appeared in Sankei Shimbun’s Seiron column on July 30.