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Since 2019, a three-year-long trade war between Japan and South Korea has been sparked by South Korea’s demand for US $364 million in compensation for more than one million Korean workers after the country failed to reach a consensus on forced labour compensation by Japanese companies during World War II. Japan imposed export controls on South Korean in July 2019 on three key raw materials needed to produce semiconductors: hydrogen fluoride, photoresist, and fluorinated polyamide. Each export contract was subject to individual scrutiny, which significantly delayed exports. The then President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, protested strongly and later advocated “getting rid of Japan” against the unreasonable control of the other side, and promoted the nationalisation of semiconductor-related materials and manufacturing equipment. During this period, Korea accelerated local production of semiconductor-related components to replace some items or was forced to purchase substitutes, while Japanese companies also faced reduced sales.
The Western Pacific has been the scene of many diplomatic events over the past period of time. Since his inauguration, the incumbent President of South Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, has made concerted efforts to improve bilateral ties with Tokyo, underscoring the need for Korea to surmount its historical disagreements with Japan. In June 2022, President Yoon was invited to attend the NATO Summit in Spain, marking the first instance of a Korean leader participating in the event. Significantly, the gathering also facilitated a reunion among the leaders of Korea, the US, and Japan after a four-year and nine-month hiatus. Additionally, in November of the same year, the Korean Navy took part in Japan’s International Maritime Parade, marking its first participation since 2015.
On the occasion of the 104th anniversary of the “March 1st Movement” Day ceremony in 2023, President Yoon delivered a speech emphasising the importance of cooperation among South Korea, the US, and Japan. According to the Korean News Agency, President Yoon highlighted that over a century has passed since the movement took place, and Japan has transformed from a militaristic aggressor to a partner that shares universal values with Korea and collaborates on economic security and global issues. He stressed that, given the complex global crisis and the grave security threat posed by North Korean nuclear activities, cooperation among the three nations is more critical than ever. To achieve this objective, the Korean government announced a significant measure to improve relations between the two countries: it will no longer request Japanese companies to compensate Korean victims of forced labour during World War II, instead creating a fund to pay the victims directly. On April 27, President Yoon visited the US. In a speech to a joint session of the US House and Senate during the visit, he made it clear that South Korea will work with the US to uphold and promote freedom values, stressing that the US-South Korean alliance should be “upgraded” on all fronts. At the end of the visit, the US and South Korea jointly issued the Washington Declaration. The declaration included a reaffirmation that if North Korea attacked South Korea, the US would cooperate with South Korea in the war and would not rule out the use of nuclear weapons. This declaration is the first time the US has documented its nuclear umbrella over South Korea. Strategically, President Yoon’s initiative to reconcile with Japan and the Washington Declaration may aid the United States in strengthening its geopolitical influence in Northeast Asia to counterbalance China.
On the other side of the Pacific, US President Joe Biden held a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese after a meeting at the San Diego Naval Base in California on March 13th. At the joint press conference, they unveiled details of the programme to supply Australia with nuclear-powered attack submarines. This major initiative involves hundreds of billions of dollars of investment to counter China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. This joint US-UK initiative to help Australia develop nuclear-powered submarines, replacing the nearly ten times cheaper diesel-powered submarine programme between Australia and France, will, if successful, significantly increase the distance and deployment time of Australian submarines in the Indian Ocean, South Pacific, and South China Sea and may eventually impede the PLA’s move to unify Taiwan across the strait.
If we now turn our attention to Southeast Asia, the US military partnership with the Philippines has also increased significantly. When former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was in office, the Philippines and China had good relationshiped significantly. Current President Marcos, who took office in June last year, has aligned himself with the US, saying that he would never allow Beijing to infringe on the Philippines’ maritime sovereignty. In February this year, the US and the Philippines agreed to expand their strategic cooperation (EDCA) by increasing the number of US bases to nine, but the locations of the four additional bases were not disclosed during government consultations with local officials. On April 3rd, Manila announced the exact locations of four military bases for the US military to be stationed in the Philippines. AFP reported that two of them are located close to Taiwan, namely an air force base on Balabac Island off the southern tip of Balawan Island, near the South China Sea, and a naval base in Cagayan province, only about 400 kilometres from Taiwan. The Philippines is geographically close to Taiwan and surrounded by sea, so the US sees it as having an important role in the Taiwan Strait conflict and keeping China in check.
With US military deployments in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia and growing alliances in the Indo-Pacific region, an Asian version of NATO is taking shape in the Indo-Pacific.
What’s Behind Japan and South Korea’s Latest Attempt to Mend Ties? Via United States Institute of Peace
US, Australia, and UK enter Aukus nuclear submarine alliance to counter Chinese military ambitions by Piotr Smolar via Le Monde
US military to gain expanded access to Philippines bases in efforts to counter China by Brad Lendon and Jeniffer Hansler via CNN