Is Reconciliation for Japan and South Korea a Warning for China?

History weighs heavily on East Asia. To Washington’s enduring frustration, its two most important democratic allies, Japan and the Republic of Korea, have been at odds for decades.

The divergence between the two grew especially sharp over the last couple of years, during which ties between Seoul and the People’s Republic of China notably warmed while those between Japan and the PRC sharply deteriorated, driven by the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Moreover, South Korea had its own contentious territorial contretemps with Tokyo.

Both parties deserved blame. The South was determined to hang onto emotional grievances—serious and real, but long past. Japan insisted on justifying indefensible actions whose perpetrators were long dead. Destructive domestic politics ruled.

At the end of December, however, the two countries tried to put the issue of the “comfort women” behind them. Beginning in 1931, with Japanese military operations in China, Tokyo created brothels for its soldiers. For years Japanese officials insisted that the women were prostitute voluntarily engaged, despite evident coercion.

Now Japan has apologized and agreed to create a compensation fund. In return, the ROK promised to drop the matter and “address” the issue of the private statue of a young girl, representing the comfort women, facing the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

It’s an important step forward, but does not yet close the issue. Both leaders have been called “traitors” by domestic critics. South Koreans have protested and termed the accord “humiliating.”

Unsurprisingly, the PRC denounced the agreement. Beijing cited the plight of Chinese comfort women. Japan must “face up to its history and take concrete actions to win the trust of its Asian neighbors and the international community,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang.

Of course, that is precisely what Tokyo has been doing. It previously moved ahead with relations with India. Manilla has publicly urged Japan to do more to promote regional security. Tensions never have been as great with Taiwan and Australia.

Most interesting are the implications for the Japan-Korea-China triangle. An unnamed State Department official called the agreement “strategically consequential.”

While Tokyo and the ROK have been at odds, Beijing and Seoul have ostentatiously embraced, with President Park meeting PRC President Xi-Jinping several times. This has simultaneously hindered U.S. efforts to isolate and contain China and added pressure on North Korea to moderate its behavior.

The PRC’s warm feelings toward South Korea may ebb a bit as a result of the pact, but Beijing cannot easily criticize another government—the sort of interference with internal affairs which it routinely decries when directed in its direction. Moreover, the bilateral economic ties are too important great for the two nations to drift apart.

While the pact opens the way for expanded military cooperation between the ROK and Seoul, President Park is unpopular and nearing the end of her term. More important, the two nations face very different security situations.

In contrast to Japan, the South fears North Korea more than the PRC. The historical and territorial disputes between Beijing and South Korea are very unlikely to lead to war.

Thus, irrespective of Washington’s wishes, it makes sense for Seoul to continue to prioritize its relationship with China over that with Tokyo. In contrast, Japan has little desire to get sucked into a land war on the Korean peninsula, while worrying mightily about Beijing’s naval advances.

Only if the ROK appears to actively join America in seeking to contain the PRC might Chinese-South Korean relations suffer. And Seoul is unlikely to make that mistake. The giant next door will always be there. The U.S. will remain the world’s leading power for years, but no longer can afford to police the globe.

As I point out in National Interest: “The South Korean-Japanese settlement is a positive step. But while it will ease tensions between America’s two top allies, it isn’t likely to turn their relationship into a new anti-China axis. Washington’s job in East Asia has gotten easier, but only somewhat.”