Japanese and South Korean warships joined with the USS Nimitz carrier strike group this week to conduct a combined search-and-rescue exercise and other maneuvers in the East China Sea, near territorial waters of both Japan and South Korea.
The one-day exercise is held annually and the Americans were particularly eager to showcase this year’s event. It provided a timely opportunity to display cooperation among the United States and two of its most important regional allies, and to demonstrate U.S. commitment to the region even in a time of budget crisis.
Instead, South Korean officials insisted on a news blackout. The stated rationale was to avoid straining ties with China. But the real reason was to avoid being seen as cooperating with Japan as the South Korean public seethed over inflammatory statements from Japan’s conservative leaders.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seemed to imply during a Diet debate in late April that Japan hadn’t committed aggression against its neighbors during the Second World War or during its colonial occupation of Korea. He also seemed to suggest that he does not fully agree with a landmark apology issued by Japan’s leaders in 1995.
Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, a rising conservative leader, later chimed in that the “comfort women” system — which mainstream historians say forced some 200,000 Korean, Chinese and other Asian women into sexual servitude to Japan’s military — had been “necessary” to maintain good order and discipline in the ranks (Hashimoto suggested that the U.S. Marines might want to set up a similar system on Okinawa, where some 18,000 troops are stationed; the Marines declined).
The South Korean press gave extensive coverage to the Nimitz’ visit to the port of Busan this week and to exercises between Nimitz and South Korean warships. But virtually no mention was made of Japan’s participation in the trilateral exercise. That event similarly received scant mention in the Japanese press.
Both Abe and Hashimoto have insisted that their comments were taken out of context and that they value friendly relations with Japan’s neighbors. Japan is involved in an increasingly tense territorial dispute with China over a group of islands in the South China Sea; by treaty, the United States is required to come to the aid of Japan if its territory comes under attack.
The Nimitz Strike Group, which includes guided-missile cruisers and destroyers, is based in Washington state. The group entered the 7th Fleet area of operations, which extends from the Western Pacific to the Indian Ocean, on May 3 and is expected remain in the region for the next several weeks.
“The USS Nimitz Strike Group is a clear sign that the U.S. Pacific Fleet remains on watch and operating forward,” said Capt. Darryn James, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Command, in Hawaii. “Even though budget constraints will cause some turbulence in the short-term, there should be no doubt about our commitment to maintain security and stability in the Asia-Pacific.”
And that includes, perhaps, between Japan and South Korea.