The United States likes to see itself as a benign force nurturing national aspirations and encouraging cooperation across what it calls a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Yet it has failed so far to sooth the latest spat between two of its most important allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea.
In early July, seemingly out of the blue, Shinzo Abe’s government restricted exports of three chemicals vital to South Korea’s high-tech industries, citing national security concerns. The row escalated quickly, with both countries taking other trade items out of the “white channels” that allow for quick customs clearance, and the South Koreans mounting a consumer boycott of everything Japanese, from UNIQLO clothing to hot-spring resorts across the Tsushima Strait.
According to Jeffrey Kingston, a professor of Japanese politics at Temple University Japan in Tokyo, Shinzo Abe is using trade as a “cudgel to get his way on other unrelated matters, right out of the Donald Trump playbook of scorched-earth diplomacy.” The acrimony was on display at an Asian security forum meeting in Bangkok this month: when the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, tried to get the foreign ministers of the two countries to pose with him for a happy photo, Taro Kono and Kang Kyung-wha twisted away, scowling.
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