Barack Obama is off to Asia. The president of the United States began his tour of East Asia on Wednesday in Tokyo, where he will then move on to Seoul, Manila and Kuala Lumpur. Japan and South Korea, top allies of Washington, stand firm waiting to greet him. In these countries, where American forces have guaranteed territorial integrity for over 60 years, the annexation of Crimea by Moscow last March — at the expensive of Kiev — has created trouble. This is because in 1994, the U.S. committed to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity … “Putin still has a lot of cards to play in Ukraine,” noted Kunihiko Miyake, a researcher at Tokyo’s Canon Institute, at a recent Paris conference. “The majority of Asians are not comfortable with this situation.”
Distrust from Tokyo
For Japan, the Russian intervention in Crimea sent a cold message, confirms Akiyoshi Komaki, correspondent in Moscow for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, joined by L’Express: “The Japanese questioned the United States’ reliability: ‘If Japan is the victim of an invasion, would the U.S. protect us?’” Despite the presence of 39,000 American soldiers on Japanese territory who are in charge of assuring their safety, the Japanese suddenly doubt the strength of their alliance with the Americans. There is a feeling of distrust, fueled by the rise, since the 2000s, of a nationalism tinted by militarism — of which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is an emblematic figure. One project in particular is very important to him: revising the pacifist constitution that was imposed by the U.S. the day after the end of WWII.
In this context, Tokyo is “very attentively” following the Ukraine situation, according to the journalist, as well as how the deterioration of Russian-American relationships has led to tensions, in turn, between Japan and Russia. These two countries have not signed a peace treaty since 1945, and their territorial dispute over the northern territories of the Kuril Islands has never been resolved.
Barack Obama, deciding to reassure the main U.S. ally in this region, firmly supported Japan on Thursday in a territorial dispute against China over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu, in Chinese), stating that they were “covered” by the defense treaty linking Tokyo and Washington. But this confirmation has come a little late. Last January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Japanese prime minister had compared
Tokyo and Beijing’s conflict over the islands to what triggered World War I.
Could China be like Russia, which seems ready for a military intervention in Ukraine, and send troops to the disputed islands in case of provocation from Tokyo? For Shen Dingli, dean of the Institute of International Affairs at Fudan University, there is no doubt: “During the Korean War in 1950-53, Beiing already sent troops to the peninsula to fight against the United States,” he reminded. “Today, with a military budget of 131 million dollars, it would not hesitate to intervene.”
In Seoul, an Era of Doubt
In South Korea as well, politicians, diplomats and analysts have begun to question their own safety, despite the presence of 25,000 U.S. soldiers responsible for ensuring territorial protection. “The Seoul government is very aware of Putin’s aggressiveness,” stated Park Kigab, professor of international law at Korea University to L’Express. They fear, according to the professor, that recent events in Ukraine are giving bad ideas to Kim Jong-Un, the leader of North Korea: “For Pyongyang leaders, Ukraine was invaded because it committed the error of voluntarily withdrawing, in the 1990’s, from nuclear weapons development. From their point of view, the atomic bomb is an essential means of ensuring the regime’s survival. They will not give it up.” Pyongyang is preparing for its fourth nuclear test, according to South Korean sources quoted by Agence France-Presse. North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is one of the top priority issues on which Barack Obama has spoken, while meeting with President of South Korea Park Geun-hye. Talks between the United States, Japan and South Korea should happen as soon as possible. In Ukraine, despite international bodies meeting, attempts at destabilization have not stopped. All eyes are now focused on the Pacific.