Japan is looking strategically isolated in Northeast Asia. While it clings to its alliance with the US, relations with democratic fellow traveler South Korea continue to fray, its concerns about North Korea are being addressed by neither Washington nor Seoul and China continues to cast a long shadow.

Tokyo is taking some appropriate steps. At a time when the number of Chinese fighter intercepts conducted by Japanese Air Self Defense Force pilots this past summer rose 20% over the same period in 2017, Japan is set to purchase billions of dollars worth of advanced weapons systems from the US.

But the unpredictability of the Donald Trump administration, and its focus on US priorities in the region, is also driving Tokyo to put out feelers to other players in the region and beyond.

Moreover, Tokyo is having particular difficulties with what would appear to be its ideal ally: its closest geographic neighbor and fellow democracy, South Korea. As Seoul eases ever closer to Pyongyang, this confronts Tokyo with the challenge of preventing any further fragmentation of the troubled, three-way alliance between Japan and the US on the one hand, and South Korea and the US on the other.

Tokyo, Seoul squabbles

As much as Washington would love to see a trilateral security alliance in Northeast Asia, the squabbles between Seoul and Tokyo are reaching new heights.

South Korea demanded that a Japanese warship not fly its navel ensign during last week’s International Fleet Review off South Korea’s Jeju Island. While the ensign – a near identical design to the Rising Sun flag Imperial Japanese troops bore in their 1930s-40s rampage across Asia – has not sparked criticism elsewhere and was reportedly flown in the same review in 2008 and 1998, Seoul demanded Japan not fly it this year.

In what may have been an effort to alleviate what looked like a bilateral move, Seoul insisted that all attending vessels fly only their national flags and Korean flags – no naval ensigns. Even so, an indignant Tokyo withdrew its vessel from the review, though a Japanese admiral attended onshore events around the review. Then, a Korean vessel with President Moon Jae-in aboard flew a 16th century flag formerly flown by Korean naval hero Yi Sun-shin, who defeated invading Japanese fleets. Tokyo launched a formal complaint.

Garren Mulloy, Associate Professor of International Relations at Daito Bunka University in Saitama, Japan, noted that Japanese vessels had paid port calls in South Korea before without controversy. Why the demands now?

“It has arisen this time due to ‘[North Korean] attempts to isolate [South Korea] from its US ally and associated allied and partner exercises, and the seeming flexibility of the Moon government to go along with this in return for an easing of Korean tensions and idealistic aims of reunifying the Korean people,” said Mulloy.

“Under national, and international law, all vessels must display a national ensign that indicates their point of origin and registration … for the Maritime Self-Defense Force, it is the 16-ray ‘rising sun’ ensign which is slightly different to that of the Imperial Japanese Navy, but similar.”

The comfort women issue is back in the headlines, too. While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe clings to the December 2015 bilateral agreement cut with the now-defunct Park Geun-hye administration, the current Moon administration seeks to gut that agreement and to disband the foundation established by the agreement, which provides Japanese funds to former comfort women.

More? Yes. South Korea’s Supreme Court will rule soon on lawsuits filed by South Koreans who were conscripted to work in Japan during World War II. While Japan contends that that issue was resolved by the 1965 diplomatic normalization agreement between the two countries – under which Japan also supplied South Korea with some US$800,000 in soft loans and reparations – modern Korean justices, sensitive to public opinion, may disagree.

One expert sees the divergence between the two democracies being driven largely by Seoul.

“Prime Minister Abe wants to build a forward-looking relationship with South Korea – which continues to look backward, seeing Japan as still tied to its militarist and colonial past,” said Professor William Brooks of the Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies in Washington DC via email.

“The Moon government ostensibly would like to move the relationship forward, but apparently due to public opinion and political pressures, has chosen to challenge Japan on a number of historical fronts.”

Citing the most recent irritant – the ensign controversy – Brooks added: “Ironically, military-to-military relations between Japan’s Self Defense Forces and [South Korean] forces have been good. It has been the unforgiving political atmosphere that continues to constrain more robust bilateral and trilateral cooperation [also multilaterally with the US] in the face of the North Korean threat. As long as emotions rule attitudes toward Japan, it is hard to see a qualitative improvement in bilateral ties.”

The flag episode was ill-timed for Abe. Another inter-Korean summit is planned in Seoul in December, while a second North Korea-US summit is anticipated after November 6, when the US holds mid-term elections.

Japan’s prime minister, who wants his own summit with Kim Jong Un, is resigned to having Trump and Moon carry messages for him in their own meetings.

“So far, the existential threat of North Korean missiles aimed at Japan has not eased at all. The North, in dismissing calls for an Abe-Kim summit, does not want to deal with Japan’s abductee issue, which it claims is ‘resolved,’” said Brooks.

“Meanwhile, Japan is wary that [South Korea] might unilaterally ease sanctions against the North, as well as that the US at some point in its negotiations with the North will agree to withdraw troops from [South Korea]. This would completely upset Japan’s strategic planning and implementation.”

Terry Roehrig, Professor of National Security Affairs and the Director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the US Naval War College, described the continued friction between South Korea and Japan over unresolved history issues as “very unfortunate and likely to remain for a long time.”

Left out in the cold

Moreover, the Koreas’ cross-border ties of blood and brotherhood may trump ties based on democratic mores and alliances with Washington.

“One point of agreement between North and South Korea is their history as a unified nation under Japanese occupation from 1910-1945. From a North Korean perspective, stoking anti-Japan sentiment in South Korea is likely a deliberate strategy,” said Roehrig.

“Japan has been consistent in its belief that pressure must be maintained on North Korea to achieve denuclearization, while South Korea has been pursuing a pro-engagement strategy in earnest. Exacerbating anti-Japan sentiment helps further disrupt cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo, which strengthens Pyongyang’s position.”

And it is not only North and South Korea. Japan’s biggest ally also has other priorities when it comes to North Korea negotiations. Japan has had no role, and currently has a minimal voice, in the problematic process of North Korean denuclearization. This is a major concern in Tokyo, for the US focuses its talks with North Korea on long-range missiles that can threaten the US.

“The US will never trade off their security priorities for any progress on the abduction issue for dozens of Japanese and hundreds of Koreans, and never would under any other president, but under President Trump, the very notion of the US acting for its allies has been questioned,” said Mulloy.

“There are fears that the United States and South Korea will cut a deal with North Korea that may not sufficiently address Japanese interests,” Roehrig added. “For example, would Washington make a deal with North Korea that addresses long-range missiles that can reach the United States while leaving medium-range missiles that can still threaten Japan?”

Seeking new friends

In this atmosphere of uncertainty, Abe is looking for friends both far and near.

“US-Japan relations are on relatively solid ground at the moment … but Japan is concerned with the possibility of declining US power, influence and commitment to the region,” said Roehrig. “Thus, while the alliance remains central to Japanese security, Abe has also been hedging his bets by building ties with others in the region and increasing Japan’s own capabilities.”

Those ties include commercial links in India and Southeast Asia, and diplomatic outreach to China, where Abe is headed later this month. “Japan is keen to keep the Chinese engaged and amicable right now,” said Mulloy. “But they have no illusions about Chinese aims to create a Chinese sea, and have made efforts to bolster civil and naval maritime capacity for ASEAN states.”

Moreover, the objectives set out by China on the Korean Peninsula also look contrary to Japanese interests. A commentary in the Global Times on October 11 entitled “Seoul’s diplomatic independence key to peninsula peace,” asserted: “South Korea has been bold about engaging with the North recently and the US should be supportive of these efforts for the sake of regional peace. The gradual withdrawal of US troops can be coordinated with the denuclearization and reunification process of the Korean Peninsula.”

All this leaves Abe facing strategic restrictions on every front. This indicates that his diplomatic efforts to hedge his bets and spread his influence are likely to continue.

“Japan will quietly continue to bolster its network of ‘partners’ in Asia, Australasia and Europe to provide the forms of support that appear to be on the ebb from Washington and to build relations that reinforce the core US alliance,” said Mulloy.

“These partnerships are reinforcements for the US alliance, but also minor hedging. It is extremely difficult to predict, but US policy could dramatically change course under Trump … Japan and other US allies need reassurance from each other how they might react to such changes.”