Japan and South Korea displayed different approaches to handling their relationships with China when they hosted the United States’ top diplomat and defence chief last week, with Tokyo adopting a harder stance to Beijing and Seoul working to avoid being caught up in a power struggle.
Diplomatic observers said this reflected the different diplomatic priorities of the two East Asian nations, with China’s need for good relations with South Korea heightened as tensions with Japan rise.
The assessments were made as Tokyo and Seoul wrapped up their meetings with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. Blinken then went on to meet Chinese diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi in Alaska, where the two sides clashed on hot-button issues like Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Tokyo and Washington hit out at Beijing in a joint statement on Tuesday, saying China’s behaviour was inconsistent with the existing international order and that its recently passed coastguard law was a “disruptive development” in the region. They said their defence alliance covered the East China Sea, where China and Japan have been in a long-running dispute over the Diaoyu Islands.
The US and Japan also objected to China’s “unlawful” maritime claims in the South China Sea and underscored the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait – an issue Beijing has said is a red line issue. The two sides also discussed Xinjiang and Hong Kong, which China has said are internal affairs.
A joint statement released by South Korea and the US on Thursday was more circumspect, saying the two nations opposed activities that undermined the rules-based international order, and calling for an open Indo-Pacific region. It did not identify China by name or mention Beijing’s red line issues.
The discussions between Seoul and Washington focused more on North Korea, with the joint statement saying US forces in South Korea would play a critical role in maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula and that the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile issue was a priority for the US-South Korea alliance. In remarks at the end of the talks, Blinken called on China to put more pressure on Pyongyang to end its nuclear programme.
Frederick Kliem, a fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said Blinken’s trip highlighted the different priorities of Japan and South Korea.
“Japan is seriously concerned about China’s assertiveness in the Western Pacific, especially the East and South China seas. That represents a tangible security threat for Tokyo, which, as things stand, has neither the desire nor the means to balance the Chinese threat without the US. It is convenient for Japan that Washington shares that threat perception, and it is no surprise that Tokyo joins the Biden administration in their assessment of China,” he said.
“As for South Korea, from a regional perspective, the problem is that Seoul does not think regionally but confines its efforts mostly to the north of the peninsula.”
Tensions between China and Japan continue to simmer over their contesting claims in the East China Sea and historic grievances over the second world war. Efforts have been made to calm tensions in recent years, including discussion of a trip to China by the Japanese prime minister, but the Covid-19 pandemic led to it being called off.
The passage of China’s coastguard law this year, which allows Chinese law enforcement vessels to conduct pre-emptive strikes against foreign ships, alarmed Tokyo, pushing it to consider sending more armed forces to the East China Sea and boost its alliance with the US.
Li Jiacheng, a research fellow with the Charhar Institute, a foreign policy think tank in Hebei province, said South Korea was more cautious in siding with the US to counter China as it did not have a territorial conflict with Beijing.
Seoul is not part of the Quad – an informal strategic dialogue between Japan, Australia, India and the US – which Beijing sees as a containment attempt by the US.
“South Korea wants China to help solve the North Korea nuclear issue and it is also economically dependent on China,” he said.
“The joint statement by the US and Japan certainly casts a shadow on China-Japan relations. I do not think the outlook for the relationship is positive. Their relationship is deteriorating on the security, economic and human rights fronts, and the confrontations in the East China Sea may get tougher,” Li said.
Sarah Teo, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said: “I think that South Korea’s approach towards China is shaped in large part by the fact that Seoul will need Beijing’s support in its policy towards North Korea.
“South Korea has also had to bear the economic brunt of China’s wrath following its decision to deploy THAAD [a US anti-missile system] in 2016 and this is likely to account for Seoul’s reluctance to fully join the US in its policy towards China.”
Song Luzheng, an international relations researcher at Fudan University, said China had a greater need to improve relations with South Korea, mainly through economic means and playing up the territorial spat between Seoul and Tokyo over Liancourt Rocks, a series of small islands in the Sea of Japan whose control by South Korea is contested by Japan.
“At least for now, more confrontations between China and Japan are expected because of the US factor and territorial disputes, and also Japan does not want China to make too much progress,” he said.
Guo Hai, an associate researcher at South China University of Technology, said the security alliance between Tokyo and the US would be strengthened and there was no way Japanese perceptions towards Beijing could be changed.
“China will need to step up ties with South Korea,” he said. “But that really depends on how many policy tools China has. Right now, other than economic and trade, China does not have many tools to use with South Korea.”
Additional reporting by Simone McCarthy