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U. S. Security Policy in Northeast Asia

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Japan and South Korea are undertaking national elections that in part reflect a decade of changes in the region and in their own recognition of their national interests. This evolution is complicating the United States' efforts to shape a new security architecture as part of its pivot to Asia.

The Japanese elections have brought the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) back into power with a resounding defeat of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Although the LDP victory is being portrayed by some as a shift toward right-wing nationalism in Japan, the reality is much less stark. The LDP has pledged to take a stronger role in defending Japanese interests in the face of rising Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, but either party would have had to make a similar pledge, and notably the smaller third-pole parties, with a decidedly more nationalistic tone, did not perform nearly as well as they had anticipated.

Japan's changing conception of military necessity reflects less a divide among the Japanese electorate or political parties than the changing realities around Japan, from an increasingly active China that is seen as potentially threatening Japanese supply lines to a United States calling on its Asian partners to more actively share the burden for regional security. Whether LDP or DPJ, Japan is moving toward the formal normalization of its defense structures and will, at least for the foreseeable future, continue or even deepen cooperation with the United States defense system in the region.

But as the United States works with Japan to play a stronger regional role in defense, and take part in balancing Chinese military developments, complete coordination of U.S. Northeast Asian security, remains complicated by the political tensions between Japan and neighboring South Korea. South Korea, too, is facing elections this week, and although the outcome is likely to be very close, there are signs late in the campaign that the opposition candidate may be moving to the fore, bringing back some of the broader defense policies more closely aligned with former President Roh Moo Hyun.

Although both the liberal and conservative forces in South Korean politics advocate a stronger defense role for South Korea, the conservatives are more likely to couch military developments as still fitting within the alliance structure with the United States, whereas Roh advocated publicly a shift to a more indigenous defense capability. Both sides see Japan as a potential future opponent, but the conservative government is more open to strengthening the trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea defense alliance, even if this is often hampered by popular opposition.  Despite these differences over the shape of defense policy, Seoul continues to engage with Tokyo in economic matters.

Although U.S. President Barack Obama has won a second term in office, political changes in the two key Northeast Asian allies will continue to complicate U.S. defense policy toward China. With more than 70,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan and Korea, Washington continues to seek ways to better integrate the two allied forces into a comprehensive security system that anchors U.S. interests in Northeast Asia. The potential divergence of political interests in Tokyo and Seoul may make it even more difficult for the United States to make progress toward this goal.

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