Alliances tend to entangle America in confrontations that have little or no relevance to the security and liberty of the republic. A prime example of that problem is the ongoing, bitter dispute between Japan and South Korea over some largely uninhabited rocks and the waters surrounding them. Tokyo and Seoul cannot even agree on the correct name of the islands or the body of water. Japanese call the islands Takeshima, while South Koreans insist on the name Dokdo. For Japanese (and most of the world), the spits of rock are located in the Sea of Japan, but South Koreans hate that name and instead call it the East Sea.
As I discuss in a recent National Interest Online article, outsiders might be tempted to snicker at such a parochial feud, but it has significant policy implications. U.S. officials are seeking to strengthen Washington’s alliances with both Japan and South Korea to counter China’s growing power in East Asia. A key component of that strategy is to encourage closer bilateral military cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul. The Takeshima/Dokdo dispute is a major impediment to such cooperation. Beijing has been quick to take advantage of the animosity by actively courting South Korea.
Japanese and South Korean leaders also pressure Washington to take sides in the controversy. Such efforts should be rebuffed firmly. Which country has sovereignty over the islands and the surrounding fishing waters should be a matter of profound indifference to all Americans.
There is a larger lesson in this petty territorial dispute. As my colleague Doug Bandow has correctly observed, Washington collects allies with less thought and discrimination than most people collect Facebook friends. In doing so, we also collect all of the disputes and feuds that those “friends” wage with other parties. That is an unnecessary and unwise policy for a superpower.