A few months back a South Korean court ruled Japanese firms needed to pay compensation to Korean laborers who worked in Japanese-run factories during the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation of Korea. A big piece of this involved compensation to the Korean “comfort women.” In the Asian theater of World War II, the Japanese military created brothels with (mostly) Korean women for their troops. The Japanese said the women were gainfully employed volunteers who were fully compensated. The Koreans assert it was – at best – sex slavery. (Most of the world and nearly every non-Japanese historian sides with the Koreans on this one.) Any who, from the Korean point of view the Japanese strategy on reparations is to deflect, deflect, deflect until the last of those who suffered pass away from old age, which will undoubtedly occur within a few years, ergo the new push from South Korean courts to provide a new legal footing for prosecution.
The Japanese didn’t like this very much and so slapped the South Korean economy with export restrictions that will cause long delays for certain materials that are absolutely critical to advanced Korean semiconductor manufactures. In retaliation Korean boycotts of Japanese goods have sprung up. Both sides have since withdrawn the other from their respective “white lists” – a classification when enables trade in sensitive technologies without the need for time-consuming and cost-intensive permitting. The Koreans are now threatening to cease intelligence sharing, which would undercut the very existence of Korean-Japanese security cooperation. If the Japanese go through with their threats, this will have a more immediate impact on the South Korean economy than what we've seen from the US-China trade war so far. The semiconductor industry is 7% of the South Korean economy so anything that threatens that industry is a threat to the entire economy. Translation: the Japanese are going for the jugular.
At the risk of sounding like a Millennial, wtf? Aren’t these countries supposed to be on the same side?
Some quick background:
American security policy in the post-World War II era is based upon a single, simple premise: we will pay you to be on our side. Everyone gets access to the U.S. market, the U.S. Navy will make the global ocean safe for everyone’s commerce, everyone gets an iron-clad guarantee to their physical security as well as the shelter of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, so long as you stand should to shoulder with the United States against the Soviet Union.
One of the problems of this strategy is that having millennia of human history meant there were millennia to build up mutual antagonisms. The American-led global Order didn’t so much end grievances among the allies as freeze them in place. It would do no good, for example, for France and Germany to go to war (again) if they were supposed to be jointly resisting the Soviets. Making the Order work didn’t just require aircraft carriers and army divisions, but also the American diplomatic corps riding herd on oftentimes quarrelsome partners.
Under “normal” circumstances, the United States would have ordered the South Koreans and Japanese to cut this crap out the day after it started. But the Americans are getting out of the global management business and so the bilateral snit has been allowed to boil up into and beyond a full international incident. It is incorrect to think of the South Koreans and Japanese as being allied. South Korea is allied to the United States, and Japan is allied to the United States, but they only work together under direct, heavy-handed American overwatch. Remove that overwatch (honestly, remove the American interest in the pair of bilateral alliances themselves), and the South Koreans and Japanese revert to what they’ve always been. Two countries sharing an epic poem of mutual dislike. A hateful pair.
Seoul, South Korea
Most of my work these days is predicting how the Order of the past seven decades crumbles into the messy Disorder of the future. I christened the path from the mostly functional here to the mostly dysfunctional there the Descent. There is no singular trigger event, but it all stems from the Americans’ washing their hands of the world writ large. It involves everything from food supplies to passenger aircraft routes to manufacturing supply chains to tariffs to armored formations to…squabbling countries that most people thought were allies. Every event triggers more, and as regards hateful pairs there are a lot of squabbles to internalize and so a lot of consequences to be aware of.
Let’s begin with East Asia. The South Koreans and Japanese are hardly the only members of the Order who loathe one another. The most obvious starting point is China v Taiwan. China sees Taiwan as a wayward province and while most of the Chinese’ last decade of naval buildup wouldn’t do jack to threaten the United States, it is fully capable of threatening Taiwan. Taiwanese-Chinese economic integration in the world of computers and electronics is hip deep, with the sector most exposed being Silicon Valley. That sort of integrated supply chain systems will completely go away. The company that stands to lose the most in absolute terms is Apple.
The only country that hates China more than Taiwan and Japan is Vietnam. In nearly every Chinese consolidation period stretching back two millennia Vietnam has been a target. The Vietnamese don’t hold a grudge against the Americans – they don’t see the Vietnam War as all that big of a deal. But the Vietnamese call their conflicts with the Chinese the Two Thousand Years War. All those Chinese firms that are setting up shop in Vietnam in an effort to get around the new U.S. tariffs on China? Pbbbbbbbt.
Further south both Singapore and Malaysia were carved out of the same British colonial administration. At first Malaysia didn’t want Singapore because they feared all the Chinese ethnics there would tip the new country’s demographic balance into being Chinese majority. When Singapore went on to be an economic success story, the Malaysians got peeved, threatened war, and still on occasion threaten the city-state’s water supplies. Not only are they too central to regional manufacturing supply chains – particularly in electronics – they share control of the Strait of Malacca, the world’s busiest trade lane. Singapore does extra duty being Southeast Asia’s primary financial hub.
On the opposite side of Eurasia, it isn’t like any of the Europeans are actually friends with one another. Even with all-hands-on-deck in the U.S. State department during the Cold War, Greece v Turkey managed a couple serious scraps and even today maintain a just-shy-of-snarling relationship.
Of more economic importance, the United Kingdom was the world’s superpower for over two centuries, more than enough time to sow a great deal of mistrust. The UK, even with its navy in a historically weak position, still commands sufficient force to make or break most northern European commerce. And with it feeling a great deal of Brexit-related umbrage, will soon be itching for ways to get back at the Continent.
Germany’s more recent (and failed) bid for superpowerhood generated flat-out detestation, especially from those countries who have no choice but to be in the German sphere of influence. Poland in particular resents being a cog in the German machine, but is now so integrated into Germany’s manufacturing supply chains it is a vital part of Germany’s supply chain network (in other words: exports). France is only Germany’s ally so long as France feels it can control Germany. That ship sailed a decade ago. For the handful of French who can (at least privately) swallow their pride and admit reality, the living horror of the Now-German-dominated European Union cannot end soon enough.
That’s just the big rivalries. There are plenty more: Poland v Lithuania, Romania v Hungary, Austria v Hungary, Bulgaria v Macedonia, the UK v Ireland, Belgium v Belgium (Belgium is weird). About the only European country everyone respects is the Netherlands because the Dutch have made not giving a f**k about other peoples’ passions their defining characteristic.
And that’s just the hateful pairs fully in the Order. There are plenty of ill feelings from Order members towards non-Order members. Iran-Saudi Arabia could get explody at a moments’ notice and set global oil markets on fire. Iran’s relations with Pakistan aren’t much friendlier. Russia hates everybody (and everybody hates Russia).
Since 1946 the Americans haven’t so much poured oil on troubled waters as smothered everything with a lead-weighted, waterlogged blanket. The security framework that supported the Order isn’t simply disintegrating, the economic access the Americans enabled isn’t simply collapsing, but the fires of history are burning through all of it at the same time.