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America’s Bickering Asian Allies

ATLANTA – American diplomats like to portray their country’s allies in glowing terms. So the world should take note when they do not – such as when US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, at a recent conference in Washington, DC, on Asian security, publicly scolded South Korea for its seemingly endless vilification of Japan. According to Sherman, South Korea’s stance – reflected in its demand that Japan apologize, once again, for forcing Korean women to provide sexual services to the Imperial Army during World War II – has produced “paralysis, not progress.”

But Sherman’s criticism could also be leveled against Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has rarely missed an opportunity to provoke Japan’s Korean critics, whether by visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, where the “souls” of 14 Class A war criminals are interred, or embracing revisionist critiques of previous official apologies for Japanese aggression.

Instead of working together to help their American ally confront the challenges posed by a rising China and the North Korean nuclear threat, South Korea and Japan have allowed their rancor to stymie effective action. This seemingly endless tension has been frustrating – and worrying – American leaders for years, especially as it has undermined the United States’ strategic “pivot” toward Asia.

Since President Barack Obama announced the pivot five years ago, the US has been attempting to bolster its forces and alliances in Asia, thereby reinforcing its strategic role in a region that China is increasingly attempting to dominate. But the relentless sniping by its two most important Asian allies has blocked the kind of concrete cooperation needed to help it achieve its main goals, including ensuring a durable, long-term military presence in the region.