In recent weeks, Abe has imposed a set of stringent trade restrictions on South Korea, demonstrating his willingness to put his country’s national interests above anything else, including bilateral relations with a close neighbor. The South Koreans have retaliated with similar trade measures. Last week, Seoul also excluded the Japanese from a long-standing intelligence-sharing agreement — deepening the crisis in relations between two of America’s most crucial allies.
Abe’s move comes straight from the Trump playbook. Since taking office, the U.S. president has aggressively pursued his own country’s perceived interests, with little concern for traditional ties with friends and partners. Trump has been especially unabashed about deploying trade as an instrument of foreign policy — even in matters that have little to do with economics per se. He used trade threats, for example, to extract concessions on migrants from Mexico.
On the surface, Abe appears to be using his trade restrictions to counter Korea’s claims in a long-simmering battle over history. The Koreans are demanding sincere apologies and compensations for wartime atrocities, while the Japanese insist that they have done enough to repent.
Seoul and many experts say Abe’s moves are payback for a ruling last year by Korean courts that ordered Japanese companies to compensate South Koreans who were forced to work for Japan during its colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Japan argues the issue was settled by a 1965 treaty that normalized ties between the two countries. Under the accord, Tokyo paid $800 million in loans and grants to the Seoul government for Korea’s losses during the colonial period. This and other historical disputes between the two neighbors have brought their relations to the lowest level in recent memory, as fervent nationalist sentiment sweeps both nations.
Yet this squabble over the past may not be the whole story. It is increasingly becoming clear that Abe is using the history debate as cover for the pursuit of Japan’s economic agenda. With the current spat as an excuse, Japan is strengthening the competitiveness of its companies that compete head-on with their Korean counterparts in many areas, including autos and electronics. Indeed, the latest measures have already taken a toll on Korean companies as they scramble to secure key materials that are now hard to import from Japan.
Japan’s decisions, and the ensuing reactions by Seoul, are likely to disrupt global supply chains and weaken the three-way alliance among Washington, Tokyo and Seoul — at a moment when that alliance is sorely needed to counter North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as well as China’s rise in the region. And the row adds yet another disruption to a global trade system already reeling from the U.S.-China trade war.
Seoul seems aware of Japan’s ulterior motives. President Moon Jae-in denounced what he called “the clear intention to attack and hurt our economy by impeding its future growth” and vowed to fight back. In retaliation, a furious Moon administration scrapped the military intelligence-sharing accord with Tokyo, but analysts worry that could hurt South Korea more as it is under direct threat by belligerent North Korea.
In terms of trade, Korea’s options are highly limited since its major companies are too dependent on Japanese suppliers for key materials and equipment. Ominous forecasts suggest that Korea’s economic growth this year will be its slowest in a decade, due partly to Tokyo’s recent actions.
That Abe is now borrowing from Trump’s playbook on trade should come as little surprise. The two leaders have established a positive chemistry that is evident during their long and frequent meetings. When Trump visited Japan in May for the enthronement of the country’s new emperor, the two leaders embraced each other, sharing a round of golf, sushi, sumo wrestling and exchange of MAGA-inspired caps. Abe is known to be one of a few Western leaders Trump is fond of.
Abe’s latest moves against Seoul have enraged many South Koreans, but they can bolster his political position at home — just as Trump’s harsh treatment of U.S. allies for the sake of “America First” pleases his domestic supporters. Until now, nations in the postwar period have tended to resist using trade as a weapon in political disputes. But in this age of hyper-nationalism and Me First, others are increasingly learning from Trump.