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A strong move to counter China

South Korea and Japan overcome their historic animosity to deter a common foe

President Joe Biden, center, speaks during a news conference with Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, and South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol on Aug. 18 at Camp David, Md. Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik

A strong move to counter China
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The Camp David summit of U.S., Japanese, and South Korean leaders confirms China’s growing threat and America’s premier role in resistance. It also manifests greater comity among democracies against increasingly aggressive dictatorships, of which China is the most threatening. An historic agreement reveals that all three nations see China as the looming danger.

America is the world’s largest economy, Japan is the third, and South Korea is the 13th. China is the world’s second-largest and, until recently, was among the fastest-growing. Its economy now falters, but its strategic ambitions remain. Nations throughout the Pacific, including America’s old adversary Vietnam, now increasingly align with America against China.

South Korea, striving to overcome its historical wariness of its vicious early 20th-century occupier Japan, now sees collaboration with an old enemy as vital to its survival against China and China’s proxy, North Korea.

The Camp David agreement commits the three countries to regular joint military exercises, ballistic missile defense collaboration (especially relevant with North Korea), countering cyber warfare, rebutting disinformation, protecting supply chains, artificial intelligence protection, and regular summits with heads of government and national security officials, among other actions.

The agreement is not a NATO-like alliance or formal defense pact. But the United States has longstanding security agreements with Japan and South Korea. It now becomes almost inconceivable that Japan or South Korea would stand aside in any conflict involving the other. China is likely to get the message.

In reaction to its disastrous World War II aggressions, Japan has minimized its military’s size and mission since the end of that war. It primarily relied on U.S. security guarantees during the Cold War. Its 1980s-era prime minister once likened his country to a giant aircraft carrier for America aimed at the Soviet Union.

The concord among democratic South Korea, Japan, and the United States illustrates how, in God’s own time, nations like people can evolve in their characters.

But China, long impoverished and largely occupied by imperial Japan during World War II, is now economically more than four times larger than Japan. Its increasingly repressive Communist leadership prioritizes military spending and a wider footprint throughout East Asia and the Pacific. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reminded Japan that nations must protect themselves against neighboring aggressors. America has pressed Japan for years to increase its military spending.

South Korea has always made military spending a greater priority because it is still technically at war with communist North Korea ever since North Korea’s 1950 invasion, for which there was an armistice but never a formal peace treaty. North Korea is among the world’s most draconian police states, and its poverty does not prevent prioritizing its military, including nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that threaten the whole region.

During the Korean War, American forces were deployed to South Korea from U.S. bases in Japan. But South Korea, like other Pacific and East Asian nations, has never forgotten its sufferings under cruel Japanese occupation, which preceded the occupation of other nations by several decades. Even 80 years later, some elderly surviving South Korean victims still seek recompense from Japan. Not all South Koreans support their government’s new concord with Japan. But younger South Koreans are not consumed by old resentments—and they can see the threat from China.

The concord among democratic South Korea, Japan, and the United States illustrates how, in God’s own time, nations like people can evolve in their characters. Imperial Japan brutally invaded nations, murdered millions, conducted torture with perverted science, was unashamedly racist, and worshipped in a cult devoted to its emperor and national exaltation. But for over 70 years, a democratic and peaceful Japan has been a stable and prosperous democracy, aligned with the United States and largely repentant over its crimes before and during World War II.

So, too, has South Korea changed from an impoverished dictatorship to a lively democracy and one of the world’s wealthiest nations. About one-quarter of South Koreans profess Christianity. In Japan, it is only a tiny percentage, but alignment with the United States across nearly 80 years and the adoption of democracy have included the absorption of many Christian-originated assumptions about human life and the dignity of the individual. Japan and South Korea are, in some sense, now a part of the West.

Of course, the alliance among Japan, South Korea, and the United States should not be overly romanticized. They have come together thanks to shared democratic principles and commitments to human rights. They also are motivated by fear. China now sees itself as the rightful hegemon of East Asia and the western Pacific. It sees Japan and South Korea as irritating appendages of U.S. power. It sees America as an adversary attempting to contain it. And it sees the democracies as collectively offering a global narrative at odds with its high-tech-enhanced one-party surveillance police state.

Under control of the Communist Party, China rejects the conscience rights and dignity of the individual that the democracies imperfectly strive to uphold. The Camp David accord with the United States, Japan, and South Korea is one step towards strengthening the democracies against Chinese ambitions. Seen in that light, it represents a big step forward.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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