OPINION: Why Did Japan Launch a Lose-Lose Trade War Against S. Korea?

OPINION: Why Did Japan Launch a Lose-Lose Trade War Against S. Korea?
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Japan, a free-trade advocate, launched a trade war against South Korea with policies echoing its pre-war "Leaving Asia" nationalist theory.

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After tightening control on exports to South Korea on three high-tech materials over security concern in July, Japan further approved to drop South Korea from its “white list” of countries granted preferential trade status. The measure will take effect on August 28.

Shortly after Japan’s announcement, South Korea responded with a tit-for-tat move by dropping Japan from its own white list as well.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hoshihide Suga (菅義偉) emphasized that South Korea was the only Asian country that had been granted preferential trade treatment since 2004. Delisting South Korea simply means putting it on the same level of other Asian countries such as China and Taiwan.

Suga’s remark raises skepticism because it means no single Asian country is included in Japan’s white list after the removal of South Korea. Isn’t it reminiscent of “Datsu-A Ron” (脫亞論) or “Leaving Asia,” a Japanese nationalist theory proposed in 1885 by Fukuzawa Yukichi (福澤諭吉)? He was the father of Japan’s modern nationalism and capitalism who urged Japan to align itself with western countries rather than its neighboring Asian countries such as China and Korea. During World War II, “Datsu-A Ron” was the underlying thought for Japan to justify invading other Asian countries (or regions).

Japan’s top five import partners are China, European Union, United States, Australia, and South Korea, while its top five export partners are the U.S., China, EU, South Korea, and Taiwan. China and Taiwan, both having waived their rights to Japan’s WWII reparations and now important trading partners of Japan, are never granted preferential trading status.

The remaining countries on Japan’s white list span from European and American continents to Oceanian countries like Australia and New Zealand. If South Korea is officially stripped of its special trade status on August 28, Japan’s white list appears too “white.”

Asia is now the driving force of the global economy. According to the 2019 IMD World Competitive Ranking, many Asian countries have outranked Japan in terms of global competitiveness, including Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea. Although Japan still controls 90 percent of two of the three controlled high-tech materials in the global market, many of its Asian peers have surpassed its economic performance in other aspects during Japan’s “Lost 20 Years.” And Japan seems to be the only country that has failed to recognize this trend judging from its preferential trading list.

In the ongoing trade dispute, Japan constantly refers to “security concern” hinting that South Korea might make illegal transfers of sensitive materials to North Korea. It is worth noting that while North Korea did not receive any reparation for Japan’s colonial rule, South Korea had received a total of US$800 million in grants and soft loans as a result of the 1965 normalization treaty. South Korea then invested the reparation payments toward industrialization and economic development, and has since grown into one of the most competitive economies in Asia.

Hence, Japan might consider the South Korean court's latest rulings to demand further reparations for Japan's colonial occupation period unreasonable.

During the Korean War in the 1950s, Japan's ports were used as a support base by the UN Forces. If the North attacks the South now, the U.S. military stationed in Japan will again be dispatched to South Korea due to the mutual security treaty. From this light, South Korea President Moon Jae-in (文在寅) being eager to reconcile with North Korea may trigger a sense of betrayal from Japan, a longtime ally in cooperating efforts against the North.

In 2004, the year South Korea was enlisted in Japan’s white list, Korean heartthrob Bae Yong-Joon (裴勇俊) took Japan by storm after the airing of the popular drama series Winter Sonata by NHK. Bae’s 2004 visit to Japan attracted more than 3,000 Japanese fans flocking into the airport and 350 riot police for security. Then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (小泉純一郎), also a fan of Bae, said in a press conference in 2004, “Bae Yong-Joon is more popular than I am in Japan.”

Unfortunately, this close tie between the two nations may have come to an end.

The recent trade dispute between Japan and Korea has been heavily politicized along with the U.S.-China trade war, and it seems likely to be a lose-lose confrontation. But shouldn’t the Asian countries, long been subjects of Western oppression and influence, cooperate with and elevate one another instead of engaging in meaningless economic battles?

READ NEXT: Japan-South Korea Trade Dispute Stems From Bitter Historical Grievances

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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