US Asia Allies Japan, South Korea Build Better China Ties Despite Concerns

U.S. allies Japan and South Korea are continuing to invest in closer ties with China, recognizing its importance despite their deep-seated geopolitical concerns over certain positions held by an assertive Beijing in an era of increased great-power competition in the Asia-Pacific region.

The emerging strategies of Tokyo and Seoul come as Washington calls on the international community to stand up to the People's Republic, a policy on the ballot Tuesday as President Donald Trump faces off with former Vice President Joe Biden for the national election.

While the White House urges nations to rethink their relations with China, those in the region don't see confrontation as an option.

"China is the world's second largest economy, and the Japan-China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships for Japan," the Japanese Foreign Ministry told Newsweek.

"Although there are various issues of concern between Japan and China, we will continue to claim what Japan should claim and resolve each issue, strongly urging China's positive response by taking the opportunity of high-level meetings and visits," the ministry said.

For South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea, ties with China have transformed even more significantly in the years since the two established modern diplomatic relations 28 years ago.

"The Republic of Korea (ROK) and the People's Republic of China (China) established diplomatic relations in August 1992, ending the history of separation for half a century, resuming historical exchanges that had lasted for thousands of years, and paving the way for forging friendly and cooperative relations for the future," the South Korean Foreign Ministry told Newsweek.

But both also recognize serious challenges in dealing with China.

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China's Premier Li Keqiang (C) waves at the conclusion of a joint press conference with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) and South Korea's President Moon Jae-in (L) at the 8th trilateral leaders' meeting between China, South Korea and Japan in Chengdu, southwestern China's Sichuan province on December 24, 2019. China hosted the leaders of squabbling neighbors South Korea and Japan, flexing its diplomatic muscle with America's two key military allies in Asia and seeking regional unity on how to deal with nuclear-armed North Korea. WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

China and Japan have for decades been locked in a territorial dispute over the Pinnacle Islands in the East China Sea. Known to Japan as the Senkaku Islands and to China as the Diaoyu Islands, the uninhabited land formations fell under the rule of Japan at the end of the 19th century.

China says records indicate the islands were historically part of China, and should be returned along with other seized territories conceded after Japan's defeat in World War II. Instead, a victorious U.S. occupied the islands in the immediate aftermath of the conflict and transferred control back to Japan in the 1970s.

Defying Japan's claims, a record number of Chinese vessels have sailed in and around the islands, prompting the Japanese Coast Guard to respond.

"It is extremely regrettable that Chinese government vessels continue navigation within Japan's contiguous zone and intrusion into the Japanese territorial sea around the Senkaku Islands," the Japanese Foreign Ministry told Newsweek. "We have repeatedly lodged strong protests against such activities by China through diplomatic channels."

The ministry vowed to demonstrate restraint while safeguarding its claimed territory, which is subject to a treaty requiring a U.S. military response in the event of an attack.

"Japan continues to deal with the situation in a calm and resolute manner under the firm determination to defend Japan's territorial land, sea, and airspace," the ministry said.

But Beijing continues to claim the right to patrol the disputed territory.

"Diaoyu Dao and its affiliated islands are China's inherent territory," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters earlier this month. "Patrolling and carrying out law enforcement activities in the relevant waters are also China's inherent right. The Japanese side should respect this."

Trump administration officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Assistant Secretary Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs David R. Stilwell portray Chinese behavior here as part of a broader pattern of aggressive actions in the region.

Under Trump, the U.S. has further prioritized challenging Chinese claims to the region, a trend first adopted by former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president.

The Obama administration initiated another dispute with China by deploying an advanced anti-missile system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, to South Korea, another post-World War II U.S. ally in the Pacific.

Like Tokyo, Seoul is looking to balance its relationship with Beijing despite points of contention.

"Although, differences in positions regarding THAAD deployment posed challenges for bilateral relations between the ROK and China, the outcome of the consultation between ROK and China on improving bilateral relations in October and President Moon Jae-in's state visit to China in December 2017 led to the normalization of the bilateral ties," the South Korean Foreign Ministry told Newsweek. "Relations between the ROK and China continue to develop in a stable way with active high-level exchanges."

The ministry noted that these ties were also developing despite the COVID-19 outbreak that emerged in the region but has since more seriously affected the West.

"Despite the restraints due to COVID-19, the ROK and China continue to carry out bilateral high-level communications and exchanges through various channels, including face-to-face and non-face-to-face diplomacy," the ministry said.

On the other hand, the Trump administration's approach to South Korea has tested the decades-long relationship with a country the U.S. went to war to defend against North Korea and China in the mid-20th century.

Moon embraced Trump's unprecedented approach to direct, top-level diplomacy with North Korea, but no deals ever emerged and fragile ties between Pyongyang and Seoul ultimately collapsed. The U.S. leader has also taken a tough stance on trying to force South Korea to pay more for their cost-sharing agreement for U.S. military forces in the country.

In the absence of a deal, the future of the American military presence appears uncertain, and South Korean officials have raised this question in public.

"Just because Korea chose the U.S. 70 years ago does not mean it has to choose the U.S. for the next 70 years, too," South Korean ambassador to the U.S. Lee Soo-hyuck said during an audit of the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee earlier this month.

"Korea can choose to keep siding with the U.S. only if it is able to love the country and if it serves the nation's interests," he added, noting that Seoul was recognizing the importance of Seoul's economic relationship with Beijing, South Korea's top trading partner.

The State Department quickly rebutted the remarks, commenting on how the U.S. was "proud" of its longtime alliance with South Korea in a statement delivered to the Korean language service of Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-funded service.

South Korea and China have established defense ties as well, and have even made progress on the THAAD issue, which once led to Chinese sanctions on South Korean tourism and major companies. In exchange for keeping the current THAAD systems, Seoul reiterated its publicly stated positions to deploy no further THAAD batteries, no additional U.S.-led missile defense systems, and also agreed there would be no trilateral military alliance with Washington and Tokyo.

The so-called "three no's" serve as a path for the two countries to advance their historically troubled relationship, Zhao told a daily press conference last month.

"We firmly oppose the U.S. deployment of THAAD in the ROK which undermines China's strategic security interests and regional strategic balance," he said. "We hope the ROK will properly handle this issue following the consensus reached by China and itself, and prevent the bilateral ties from being disrupted or impacted. We would like to work with the ROK to move forward the bilateral relations."

Japan has also walked back from plans to purchase U.S. missile defenses, a proposal that drew ire from both China and Russia. Both countries remain concerned, however, that the U.S. is looking to deploy offensive mid-range missiles in the region since abandoning the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty last year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the issue during his talk at the Valdai Discussion Club.

"Unfortunately, we have to confront new threats," Putin said of Moscow and Beijing's growing security cooperation. "For example, the intention stated by our American partners to possibly deploy medium- and short-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific Region, of course, raises alarm, and we undoubtedly will have to take reciprocal steps—this fact is self-evident."

He did not rule out the possibility of eventually upgrading the two countries' strategic partnership into a formal military alliance, an idea received warmly during Zhao's briefing the following day in Beijing.

Such a move, for which neither side has yet indicated any plans, could reshape the security landscape in Asia, a region where U.S. dominance is facing its most severe test since World War II.

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(L-R) South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu arrive at a trilateral meeting during the 56th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, southern Germany, on February 15. The Trump administration's efforts to renegotiate U.S. alliances have irked some countries who have long counted on the Pentagon to provide assistance at rates deemed unfair by the U.S. president. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. has sought to boost its grip by working alongside partner nations Australia, India and Japan as part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The foursome is dedicated to enforcing a "free and open Indo-Pacific" that counters China's expansive territorial claims in strategic areas like the South China Sea.

But Tokyo in particular is wary of portraying the Quad as a plot against Beijing.

"The Japan-Australia-India-U.S. framework is a forum in which we have a wide range of discussions to promote concrete cooperation to address common challenges such as the promotion of a 'Free and Open Indo-Pacific,' quality infrastructure, maritime security, counter-terrorism, among others," the Japanese Foreign Ministry told Newsweek. "As such, it does not focus on a particular country."

Relations between Tokyo and Washington remain robust too, even despite Trump's tough approach to trade ties. It has also invested in better relations with Canberra and New Delhi, even if ties with Seoul were nearing a historic low over Japan's use of Koreans as forced labor in Japan during World War II, for which South Korea continues to demand reparations.

China has taken note of the changing atmosphere of the Asia-Pacific, and especially U.S. official remarks characterizing the Quad as a sort of quasi-coalition against Beijing.

After Pompeo accused the ruling Chinese Communist Party of "exploitation, corruption and coercion" during a Quad meeting in Tokyo last month, Beijing's embassy in Washington defended China, and charged the top U.S. diplomat with "reckless smearing and groundless accusations" against the country in remarks sent to Newsweek.

"China is committed to the path of peaceful development and firmly safeguards its sovereignty, security and development interests," the embassy spokesperson said. "At the same time, it is committed to resolving differences with other countries through dialogue and consultation. This is what we say and also what we do."