Forbes Online

As U.S. Welcomes Japan's PM, South Korea Wants Focus On War History

Senior Fellow

When Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe becomes the first leader from his country to address a joint session of U.S. Congress on Wednesday evening in Washington D.C., it will be his most important speech outside Japan in 2015. His objective will be to convince Americans to embrace his more proactive and can-do Japan, which is no easy feat when memories of an imperial Japan will be revived in a seventieth anniversary year of the end of World War II.

It will also be a vitally important address and visit for U.S. President Barack Obama and his pivot or rebalance to Asia. The leaders will put the finishing touches to the U.S.-Japan defence guidelines, the first time it has been revised since 1997. Also critical to the success of the rebalance is that allies accept more of the security burden in East Asia, and the failure of Abe to win hearts and minds in Washington will play into the hands of those believing that Abe’s Japan presents more of a risk than an opportunity for the U.S.

All this being the case, revelations that South Korea has hired Washington D.C.-based BGR Public Relations to sell Seoul’s version of wartime history and the message that Japan is not adequately remorseful of such history to an American audience ahead of the Abe visit is unlikely to sit well with many in the Obama administration and in Congress.

While Japan is seen by many as yesterday’s power, policy insiders know better. It is still Asia’s second largest and most advanced economy. It also has a middle class with far greater spending power than China currently has. Still constrained by a post-war Constitution designed to end Japanese adventurism once and for all, the country nevertheless has the most advanced navy and air force of any Asian power and is still more than a match for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in East Asia’s maritime domains. And with legislative changes about to take place to allow the export of defence related technologies to like-minded countries in the region, Japan remains America’s most important ally in Asia and is a thriving democratic polity existing as a successful counterpoint to China’s authoritarian model.

Yet, while Southeast Asian states, including many that suffered at the hands of Japanese forces during the war, join with America in welcoming Abe’s plan to use Japanese heft to help reinforce and strengthen the existing U.S.-led strategic and military order in the region, the two Koreas stand with China in rebuffing the idea of Japan as a revitalized strategic player.

With nationalistic fervor in those lands shaped by the anti-Japanese sentiment from early in the previous century, Abe has become a demonized figure for those governments. While the strategic and political interests of China and North Korea mean that they will naturally oppose the prospect of a reinvigorated Japan, a democratic South Korea stands with its American ally in purportedly wanting a rules-led order underpinned by America and its alliance system. It is no wonder that the Japan-South Korea enmity has been an ongoing source of frustration for Washington.

Americans who understand Northeast Asia are under no illusions about the long and hard road ahead before amity can be restored between two of its most powerful allies in Asia. Most will also accept that there has been fault on both sides over the years and Washington would want Tokyo and Seoul to quietly and constructively find a way to work toward their common interests, even if history stands in the way of full reconciliation.

But Washington would not expect its allies to import rivalries and differences onto American shores. Seoul already pushed the boundaries when it publicaly questioned the wisdom of inviting Abe to address Congress in the first place, despite such a decision being the prerogative of House speaker, John Boehner. And while seeking professional help in shaping and communicating a message to a foreign audience is a common and legitimate practice, doing so to seemingly counter if not undermine a historic speech by the leader of a democratic security ally of America will be seen by most as beyond the pale.

The upshot is that while Abe has this opportunity to sell his vision of Japan to an all-important audience, Seoul will also have considerable diplomatic ground to make up with its most important ally. If there was any misconception in Washington about how difficult it will be to coordinate the actions of its allies in Northeast Asia – the most important strategic region for the future if it is to be an Asian Century as many predict – then any such error will have surely been dispelled.