Contributor Kyle Mizokami writes:
If the situation off the coast of Somalia has any one positive outcome, it could be bringing together countries that otherwise would never cooperate. As French, German, and Russian forces cooperated during the Boxer Rebellion, common interests in the Indian Ocean are pushing South Korea and Japan to cooperate as well.
The historical enmity between the two nations has its roots in the brutal Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and Japan’s insistence during the postwar era to not fully own up to past atrocities and war crimes. Most recently the two countries have bickered over the ownership of Dokdo, a 168-acre patch of nothing. Fortunately, under American regional hegemony the two countries have not reverted to being enemies but rather economic and military rivals.
Last week, both Japan and South Korea decided to send ships to Somalia. The South Koreans are sending one Chungmugong Yi Sun-sin (KDX-II)-class destroyer, pictured. The Japanese are proposing to send a naval task force of unknown composition, likely including at least two destroyers and a replenishment ship. (You can bet that if the South Koreans are sending a KDX-II destroyer, one of their most modern, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force will send the best they can without detaching ships from the Ballistic Missile Defense mission.)
According to The Japan Times, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak have agreed to work together together to coordinate the escort of civilian shipping in areas of pirate activity. Though this does not include the naval forces of both countries working together, it apparently will involve the possibility of one country escorting the other’s civilian shipping. Such missions are without precedent in relations between the two countries.
Reaction on both sides is mixed but predictable. In South Korea, the announcement has not been widely reported in the Korea press, probably because the government knows that this is not going to go over very well with public opinion. The Japan Times says that it is “not unusual” that South Korean-flagged ships would be escorted by MSDF ships. This attitude is not surprising, since modern Japan has reinvented itself as everyone’s peaceful friend, and seems to be genuinely taken by surprise whenever anyone airs a contrary opinion.
Japan and South Korea are natural economic competitors, but also natural military allies. Both export-driven economies heavily reliant on imported resources, they share the same interests — the stability of East Asia and the security of global shipping lanes. Generally speaking, they’re on the same page on everything except for North Korea, which Japan views as a bad neighbor and South Korea views as a bad brother. One gets the feeling that between the two nations military partnership is an inevitability, although only after Korean unification.
The notion that Japan and South Korea might grow closer because of military action off the coast of Africa is something nobody could have anticipated. It’s a small matter of cooperation, baby steps compared to the daily joint operations between the United States and its western allies. And the world does occasionally see countries working together that promptly go back to baiting each other (two members of NATO in particular come to mind.) It will take decades to become fully realized, but the Somalia mission, for both Japan and South Korea, is the beginning of a military partnership.