Seoul stands to lose by reconciling with Tokyo

Northeast Asia is undergoing remarkable changes. Under Prime Minister Yoon Sukyeol, the Republic of Korea has been trying to improve ROK-Japan relations by turning a blind eye to history, especially Japan's militarist past and the atrocities the Imperial Japanese Army committed in Korea and other parts of the Asia-Pacific region including China. And the United States, Japan and the ROK are aggressively strengthening their strategic ties.

But by doing so, the US-Japan-ROK alliance risks triggering confrontations in Northeast Asia.

More important, by trying to establish friendly relations with Japan and mostly depending on the US to boost its economy, by reducing trade and other relations with China, the ROK could end up on the opposite side of the global economic trend. ROK-Japan relations have always been the weakest link in the US-Japan-ROK alliance, with Seoul-Tokyo ties hitting rock bottom during the term of Moon Jae-in as ROK president, with open spats over history and territory.

But Seoul's attitude toward Tokyo has changed since Yoon became ROK president. On March 1, the 104th anniversary of the 1919 Independence Movement of Korea, a movement that called for complete independence from imperial Japanese rule, Yoon unabashedly claimed that Japan has changed from an "aggressor" to a "partner".

Under the Yoon administration's scheme, the Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization funded by ROK enterprises, paid compensation to some of the Korean people who were enslaved by Japanese companies before and during World War II. This allowed the Japanese companies to wash their hands of the crime of wartime forced labor.

The ROK's unilateral concession has paved the way for the improvement of ROK-Japan relations. And Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's visit to Seoul earlier this month came less than two months after Yoon Suk-yeol paid a visit to Tokyo, marking the resumption of "shuttle diplomacy" between the two neighbors after a 12-year suspension caused by their differences over Japan's occupation of Korea and war crimes.

That in turn bolstered the US-Japan-ROK alliance, and from now on, the ROK will share more information with Japan on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's missile launch and other nuclear programs. Also, the US, Japan and the ROK are working to strengthen their trilateral security mechanism through frequent bilateral and trilateral meetings.

While Seoul is trying to consolidate its security alliance with Washington, Yoon has been emphasizing that the ROK-US alliance is an alliance of value, aimed at safeguarding the universal values of freedom and democracy. During his visit to the US in April, Yoon even said that "the alliance was forged in blood as a result of our fight for freedom".

Besides, the US and ROK leaders issued the Washington Declaration in April, saying they are committed to strengthening their security alliance.

As for China-ROK relations, the Yoon government has challenged China's core interests and joined the US-led anti-China club by abandoning its years-long balanced diplomacy. The Yoon administration, it appears, prefers dancing to the US' tune to promote the so-called value-oriented diplomacy and counter China, rather than doing what is best for his country and its people. The ROK seems to rely on the US for both security and economic development, instead of adhering to its earlier policy of relying on the US for security and China for trade and economic growth.

However, the ROK-Japan unprincipled reconciliation may not last long, and decoupling with China will harm the ROK's national interests. The sooner Yoon realizes this, the better for the ROK. He should also realize that the Seoul-Tokyo reconciliation is not in the best interest of the ROK, as the thousands of people protesting against the ROK's move have been saying.

Some Japanese conservative forces claim that Japan's annexation of Korea was legal based on the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1910, while the Japanese government has been insisting that all its colonial era issues from 1910 to 1945 had been settled through the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the ROK, which led to the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two sides.

The treaty included an agreement in which Japan provided loans to the ROK, which in Japan's views covered the compensation for wartime forced labor.

Moreover, the Kishida administration aims to build Japan into a global military power with the help of the US, and Japan's attitude toward the ROK has always been condescending. So if the US-Japan-ROK alliance triggers a confrontation in Northeast Asia, the ROK would perhaps suffer the most as the spearhead of the trilateral alliance.

Given the interdependence of the Chinese and ROK economies, the latter may suffer huge economic losses by following the US' diktat and decoupling with China, not least because China is its biggest trading partner. This could be the tragic reality for the ROK also because the Joe Biden administration has enacted the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act to "reshore" cutting-edge technologies and manufacturing in order to maintain the US' competitive advantage, rather than helping its allies — and also because the US does not want to lose the Chinese market, despite its "contain-China" strategy.

The author is an associate professor at the School of International Studies, Nanjing University.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.