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Times are Changing in Northeast Asian Waters

by Sheila A. Smith
October 10, 2012

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda shakes hands with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Kyoto Japan's prime minister Yoshihiko Noda shakes hands with South Korean president Lee Myung-bak in Kyoto, Japan December 18, 2011 (Kyodo/Courtesy Reuters).

A few weeks ago, the blow up between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands captured out attention. But a little less conspicuous is the new era of Japan-South Korean tensions in the seas of Northeast Asia. The eruption of tensions between Tokyo and Seoul resulted after South Korean president Lee Myung-bak visited islands at the center of a territorial dispute between the two U.S. allies.

News reports in Tokyo and Seoul last week revealed that on September 21 the South Korean air force sent F-15K fighter jets to respond to a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) helicopter that had entered the South Korean air defense zone without notification.

The helicopter was attached to the Japanese destroyer Ariake, and was reportedly forty-eight to fifty-four kilometers (thirty to thirty-four miles) from the easternmost part of Dokdo/Takeshima Island. South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense later reported to the National Assembly that as the MSDF helicopter had entered the Korean Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ), the ROK military was thereby mobilized to defend South Korean airspace.

Reporting in South Korea highlighted that Japan has deployed helicopters to the area once or twice a year, and as recently as last May. Also, unlike in times past when Japan Coast Guard (JCG) helicopters were used, the deployment of a MSDF helicopter makes this the first time a military helicopter has entered this airspace. Japanese defense minister Satoshi Morimoto clarified the incident in a press conference on October 5. The Ariake was on its way to a Search and Rescue exercise with the Russian navy at Vladivostok, and its helicopter was conducting take-off and landing training in international waters.

Morimoto downplayed the incident, saying that all countries respond to foreign intrusions into their air defense identification zones (ADIZ), and that the MSDF helicopter had no intention of approaching the disputed islands.

This is not the first time that Washington’s two allies had a testy response to each other’s actions around the islands. In 2006, Japanese plans to survey the waters and seabed in and around the islands provoked Seoul into putting their coast guard to sea to prevent the entry of JCG vessels. At the time, the ROK dispatched twenty ships and put maritime forces on high alert, prompting considerable concern among U.S. officials that the incident might escalate.

The South Korean government is clearly staking out the territorial dispute as a priority. Last Thursday a group of foreign journalists were invited to Dokdo/Takeshima to assert South Korea’s claim on the islands. Revelations of the MSDF helicopter incident have prompted National Assembly members, including Baek Kun-ki of the Defense Committee, to advocate for a stronger military response to any future Japanese incursion.

In Tokyo, this is viewed as part and parcel of a broader and seemingly growing regional hostility towards Japan. Calls for a new strategy for Japan, one that will more forcefully protect its own sovereignty and articulate its own positions on these territorial disputes, are growing more frequent. South Korean president Lee’s visit to Dokdo/Takeshima in August shocked many Japanese as there is broad support for the diplomatic partnership with Seoul and affinity for the South Korea people.

Northeast Asian waters are now center stage in a growing drama of regional nationalisms all centered on island disputes. The potential for political pressures to affect military actions between Seoul and Tokyo seems inconceivable, but growing calls for greater defense of the sovereignty of islands offshore have led to intensely felt assertions of national anger and pride. The ongoing regional power transition is also setting everyone on China’s periphery on edge. Territorial disputes, nationalism, and a shifting military balance in and across the seas of Northeast Asia are a volatile mix.

Washington’s two closest allies in East Asia seem destined for a long period of difficulty. Seoul and Tokyo both have political elections ahead and the extent of acrimony that short-term politics can produce remains to be seen. What is clear is that the politicization of the island dispute has led to a new willingness to demonstrate defense of sovereignty through military means.

If this impulse for confrontation remains unchecked, this will be the end of the virtual alliance that U.S. planners had long hoped for. Even more to the point, security cooperation between these two nations, and U.S. military forces in both countries, has long served to augment their own national defense preparations, and each U.S. ally has played a crucial role in regional stability. Facing off against each other opens up dangerous new vulnerabilities for both Tokyo and Seoul at a time of considerable flux in regional security trends.

Washington can no longer assume that it can serve to mediate and facilitate frictions between each capitol. Moreover, if sensitivities between Seoul and Tokyo continue to fester, policies in support of one ally could begin to be interpreted through the lens of this Seoul-Tokyo dispute, resulting in a competition for Washington’s support. Gone will be the opportunity for these two alliances to complement each other in Northeast Asia, and diminished will be the effort to sustain a concerted effort to develop peace and trust in the region.

That future possibility, in and of itself, signals a dangerous new phase of maritime interaction in Northeast Asia. Before this is allowed to go too far, leaders in Seoul and Tokyo should tell their publics why security cooperation—even if only virtual and from a distance—has been in their nations’ interests and explain the costs of this brewing dissension.

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