Rethinking the East Asian Balance of Power: Historical Antagonism, Internal Balancing, and the Korean-Japanese Security Relationship

By Hwang, Jihwan | World Affairs, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Rethinking the East Asian Balance of Power: Historical Antagonism, Internal Balancing, and the Korean-Japanese Security Relationship


Hwang, Jihwan, World Affairs


EAST ASIA AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS THEORY

It is often said that international relations (IR) theories have failed to explain adequately security relationships among East Asian countries because theories could not recognize how different the cultures, histories, geographies, and traditions are from those of the West. European history has been the laboratory from which IR theories have derived their main arguments. As many scholars have pointed out, however, there have been some major differences between East Asia and Europe. (1) Scholars argue that, unlike in Europe, psychological factors such as historical mistrust and animosity among regional actors are important variables in East Asia. (2)

One clear anomaly put forth in this regard is the relationship between South Korea and Japan. Both countries have been U.S. allies, since 1953 and 1951, respectively, and they built the East Asian security triangle after World War II. In the post--cold war period, the United States expected that coordination between the two countries would continue to be indispensable for dealing with military contingencies in East Asia. The relationship between South Korea and Japan, however, has shown a great deal of volatility in the postwar era, even though they have faced common threats from North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union. (3) According to IR theories of balance-of-power and balance-of-threat, there should have been a security cooperation and defense treaty, hut they have remained averse to each other. This is one reason that there is no multilateral alliance such as NATO in East Asia. (4)

Many East Asian experts have already explained this unpredictability by focusing on the historical legacy between Japan and Korea. (5) Originating largely from Japan's ruthless colonialism in the Korean peninsula during the first half of the twentieth century, historical antagonism against Japan has become so deeply embedded in Korean society, passed down generation to generation through media and history education, that anti-Japanese sentiment has characterized a major part of the Korean national identity and nationalism. East Asian specialists have argued that such a historical legacy is a primary explanatory variable that has made it very difficult for the two countries to cooperate even when there are mutual interests. Even IR scholars do not deny that historical animosity is very important to understanding the Korean-Japanese relationship, but there have been few efforts to explain this variable from the theoretical point of view. (6) Rather, IR scholars have contended that feelings of amity and enmity cannot account for longer-term variations in decision making and foreign policy outcomes, many of which have involved not only friction but also cooperation. (7)

In this sense, I explain such a history variable in terms of IR theory and focus on the issue of balancing options among East Asian states. I ask why South Korea and Japan did not create a bilateral security alliance after World War II, although each country has one with the United States. I argue that historical antagonism has prevented South Korea from pursuing security cooperation with Japan and that the colonial legacy has also affected Japanese security policy. For this purpose, I focus on the two countries' balancing behaviors in the 1970s, when the United States tried to disengage from East Asia, and I ask why South Korea and Japan chose internal balancing rather than external balancing with the other nation. (8)

THEORETICAL CONSIDERATIONS

Realism offers a strong explanation regarding the behavior of states against external threats. Specifically, neorealist ideas such as balance-of-power and balance-of-threat theory argue that states align to protect themselves against the power of or the threats from other states. (9) Neorealists emphasize that the determinants of alignment come from the unique structure of the international system, particularly the actual and potential external threats and power distribution among states. …

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