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Japan-South Korea Conflict and the Future of the Western Alliance in the Pacific

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In 1991, with the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Western Bloc defeated its greatest enemy. Many experts, such as Francis Fukuyama, author “The End of History and the Last Man”, have stated and argued that liberalism, and therefore the West, has completely prevailed. However, in the following period, the situation progressed in the opposite direction of what was expected.  First Russia and then China took their place in the international system as new powers and the West perceived these powers as threats.

Both the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia and the political fault lines neighboring China have caused an increase in the tension between these states and the West. Although relations have shown signs of improvement from time to time, such as at the G20 Leaders’ Summit in November 2022, they have remained negative due to the visits of officials from the United Kingdom,[1] Australia[2] and Japan[3] to the island of Taiwan.

Within this process, the Australia-United States of America (USA) Ministerial Consultation (AUSMIN) talks were held on December 6, 2022 in Washington, the capital of the USA,[4] and it was agreed that the USA-Japan-Australia trilateral military presence in the region should be increased. Japan then announced that it would increase its defense budget. Thus, Japan continued to take steps in line with the decisions taken at the AUSMIN talks.

Japan – South Korea Conflict

The sovereignty dispute over the two islands, Dokdo and Takeshima, which emerged following Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945, flared up again after Japan announced its national security strategy on December 16, 2022.[5] Japan has claimed sovereignty over the islands in its security strategy document. This naturally drew the reaction of the Seoul administration. The South Korean Foreign Ministry demanded the immediate removal of these allegations and summoned the Japanese Ambassador to the ministry to protest the situation.[6]

As is well known, Yoon Suk-yeol and his government, which took office in May 2022, are committed to resolving past issues with Japan. In this context, in 2022, negotiations were held between Japan and South Korea on wartime labor compensation and solutions were sought.

While the relations between the two countries, which act together in the region thanks to both the efforts of the South Korean government and the North Korean threat, have a positive atmosphere, it can be stated that the emergence of such a problem, although unpleasant, will not lead to a serious problem.

Indeed, although South Korea’s conservatives point to Japan’s imperial past,[7] the Seoul administration has stated that Japan’s efforts to increase its military capabilities are understandable given the North Korean threat. In addition, the South Korean Foreign Ministry emphasized the need to preserve the peaceful spirit of Japan’s Constitution and that any military action capable of attacking the Korean peninsula must be carried out in agreement with South Korea.[8]

The Future of the Western Alliance

In November 2022, the G20 Leaders’ Summit took steps to improve relations between China and various Western states, but these steps were not followed up. In fact, Taiwan, which Beijing is sensitive about, has been visited one after another by delegations of parliamentarians from several states. As mentioned earlier, these states are Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom. In this context, although Australia stated that the visit had nothing to do with the government, these statements were not enough to satisfy China.

While tensions between China and the West have risen following visits to Taiwan and Japan’s increased military spending, Australia and China continue to cooperate in certain areas and are engaged in discussions to improve relations. For example, on December 21, 2022, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks.[9] During these talks Wang stated, “We can grow our bilateral relationship and uphold our national interests, if both countries navigate our differences wisely.”[10] The talks also raised hopes that at some point China would lift its import restrictions on Australia.

As a result, after the AUSMIN talks on 6 December 2022, it was observed that the Western alliance took consistent steps in the Pacific in the field of defense. However, negativity has also emerged from time to time. For example, renewed disputes between Japan and South Korea have led to mutual protests, first over Japan’s claims of sovereignty over the islands of Dokdo and Takeshima, and then over South Korea’s military exercises near these islands.[11]

Although at first glance, it may be thought that this situation will cause a rift within the Western alliance, it can be predicted that both the Yoon Government’s desire to improve relations with Japan and seek solutions to problems and the mediator role that the USA has long assumed between the two countries will prevent a possible conflict. It is also important to keep in mind that the talks between Australia and China, even if they gave a good impression, did not mean that Australia would not focus on defense policies, as indicated by the commitment of the Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles after the G20 Summit to improve relations with China.[12]

In conclusion, while Australia is keen to develop its relations and trade with China, it will not abandon its defense policies. A rift within the Western alliance is unlikely to emerge in the future, both in terms of Australia and the Japan-South Korea dispute.


[1] “China Condemns British Lawmakers’ Taiwan Visit”, BBC, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-63826052, (Date of Accession: 1.12.2022).

[2] “Government and Opposition MPs to Visit Taiwan as Part of Australian Parliamentary Delegation”, ABC News, www.abc.net.au/news/2022-12-03/australian-mps-to-visit-taiwan-parliamentary-delegation/101730950, (Date of Accession: 03.12.2022).

[3] “Japan MP in Taiwan Says ‘China Threat’ Needs More Military Spending”, Pars Today, parstoday.com/en/news/world-i190678-japan_mp_in_taiwan_says_china_threat’_needs_more_military_spending, (Date of Accession:11.12.2022).

[4] “Joint Statement on Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) 2022”, U.S. Department of State, www.state.gov/joint-statement-on-australia-u-s-ministerial-consultations-ausmin-2022/, (Date of Accession: 06.12.2022).

[5] Mirna Galic, “What You Need to Know About Japan’s New National Security Strategy”, United States Institute of Peace, www.usip.org/publications/2022/12/what-you-need-know-about-japans-new-national-security-strategy, (Date of Accession: 19.12.2022).

[6] Mirna Galic, “What You Need to Know About Japan’s New National Security Strategy”, United States Institute of Peace, www.usip.org/publications/2022/12/what-you-need-know-about-japans-new-national-security-strategy, (Date of Accession: 19.12.2022).

[7] Hyun-jun Yeo, “South Korean Media Diverge on Whether Japan’s New Security Strategy Poses Threat”, Korea Pro, www.nknews.org/koreapro/2022/12/south-korean-media-diverge-on-whether-japans-new-security-strategy-poses-threat/, (Date of Accession: 25.12.2022).

[8] “South Korea…”, op.cit.

[9] “Australia-China Foreign Ministers Meet in Bid to Repair Ties”, AP News, apnews.com/article/g-20-summit-politics-business-covid-penny-wong-7af410518b7deea0b6c2504eb462150f, (Date of Accession: 21.12.2022).

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Japan protests South Korean Military Drills Near Disputed Isles”, Kyodo News, english.kyodonews.net/news/2022/12/ef5c7a24d4e0-japan-protests-s-korean-military-drills-near-disputed-isles.html, (Date of Accession: 23.12.2022).

[12] “No Shift in Australia Defence Policy After Xi Meeting-Diplomat”, Reuters, www.reuters.com/world/no-shift-australia-defence-policy-after-xi-meeting-diplomat-2022-11-16/, (Date of Accession: 16.11.2022).

Elcan TOKMAK
Elcan TOKMAK
Elcan TOKMAK, 2022 yılında Gazi Üniversitesi İktisadi İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü'nden mezun olmuştur. Eylül-Aralık 2022 tarihleri arasında ANKASAM bünyesinde Kariyer Staj Programı'nı tamamlayan Tokmak, Temmuz 2023 tarihinden itibaren ANKASAM Asya-Pasifik Araştırma Asistanı olarak çalışmalarını sürdürmektedir. Şu anda Hacettepe Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü'nde Yüksek Lisans eğitimine devam eden Tokmak'ın ilgi alanları Çin-Japonya-Kore ilişkileri ve Çin Dış Politikası'dır. Tokmak; profesyonel düzeyde İngilizce, orta derecede Çince ve başlangıç düzeyinde Korece bilmektedir.