U.S. Gets Its Asian Allies Together — Finally

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Navy Photo / Lt. Cmdr. Denver Applehans

A rare sight: Warships from South Korea, U.S. and Japan steam in formation doing joint training exercise in the East China Sea early Thursday,June 21. From right to left are ROKS Munmu the Great (DDH-976), JS Kurama (DDH-144) and USS McCampbell (DDG 85).

TOKYO – For the first time ever, warships from the United States and its two closest Asian allies have come together in a joint military training exercise. But if the Americans can just keep the South Koreans and Japanese from shooting at each other, that might be a victory in itself.

The two-day exercise began Thursday in the East China Sea. It includes the USS George Washington aircraft carrier and several escorts, and three ships each from the Republic of Korea Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. The goal is to improve communications and the ability to operate together in wartime or contingency operations.

Relations between Japan and South Korea have never been very good, but are at a particular low point now, with lingering disputes over territory and Japan’s wartime legacy.

Last month, Seoul backed out of signing two relatively modest defense agreements with Japan. The agreements would have been the first military-related accords between the two countries since the Japanese occupation of Korea ended with Japan’s surrender in World War II.

The two countries would seem natural allies. Japan and South Korea are democratic neighbors with deep economic ties. Both face the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and China’s increasing military power. Each have mutual defense treaties with the United States, train regularly with US forces, and have thousands of American troops stationed on their soil.

Yet Japan and South Korea have few formal military relations. They exchange occasional port calls and liaison officers, and their naval forces take part in multinational exercises like the annual RIMPAC war games in Hawaii. But their militaries have never trained together directly or even as a threesome with US forces.

“I would describe Korea and Japan as wary partners,” says Peter Beck, Korea representative of the Asia Foundation. “They increasingly need each other, but the shadow of history looms over both of them.”

A change was due in May. After months of negotiations, Tokyo and Seoul were set to sign two modest but nonetheless important defense agreements. One would have allowed the exchange of certain military intelligence information, particularly regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program; the other would have permitted logistical cooperation – the exchange of food, water and fuel — when Japan and South Korea troops were engaged in peacekeeping, humanitarian or disaster relief operations in the same place at the same time.

US Navy

Neither agreement would have allowed the exchange of weapons or ammunition, permitted intervention in contingency operations in the other’s country, or required either country to come to the other’s aid in time of war or emergency.

Nonetheless, the signing ceremonies were called off at the last moment and Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin canceled a long-planned trip to Japan when opposition leaders in Seoul complained. Public sentiment was largely against deeper military ties, as well. Relations have been hampered in recent years over a number of emotional issues, including ownership  of Takeshima Island (called Dokdo, in South Korea) and wartime “comfort women.”

Seoul has been pressing Tokyo to apologize and pay compensation for thousands of women pressed into sexual slavery or prostitution during the Japanese occupation, which lasted from 1910 to 1945; Tokyo says it has already done both. Japan wants South Korea to relinquish control of Takeshima, which it claims as its own; Seoul says “Dokdo” belongs to South Korea, and they aren’t leaving.

Failure to sign the defense agreements was a “lost opportunity,” says Jeffrey Hornung, associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Honolulu.

“What could have been a practical, forward-looking effort to strengthen relations between two vibrant democracies facing shared security challenges has instead become another casualty of the complexities of politics and history,” Hornung says in a written review.  The APCSS is a US Defense Department-supported research organization, but Hornung says his views are his own.

Still, the fact that this week’s exercise went ahead as planned is a good sign.

The U.S., Japanese and South Korean warships are scheduled to spend two days doing search and seizure, boarding and air defense drills; conducting helicopter and surveillance operations; and practicing “dynamic maneuvers” (Navy-speak for going fast and turning hard).  They’ll also exchange ship visits, and practice communications to ensure that language are terminology are the same for all.

One thing they will not do is to practice with live ammunition. And given all that history, maybe that’s a good thing.