Japan’s former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has won the governing party leadership election and is set to be become the next Prime Minister. As the new leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Kishida is certain to be elected as the next Prime Minister on Monday. Almost simultaneously, as Japan’s ruling LDP elected its new leader and the country’s new Prime Minister, South Korea made a strategic move. Now, it is being anticipated that Japan and South Korea could finally find some closure in their historically rocky relationship, and move together into the future with the common objective of securing the Indo Pacific and countering China.
Seoul’s top trade official said on Wednesday that South Korea will seek to strengthen trade cooperation with Japan amid challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, and a more friendly business environment will be offered to Japanese firms in the country. Trade Minister Yeo Han-koo added, “The government will spare no efforts to promote the economic ties between South Korea and Japan…South Korea will offer an open and transparent business environment for all foreign businesses in line with the rules of the World Trade Organization.”
Interestingly, Fumio Kishida, who is all set to take charge as Japan’s Prime Minister on Monday, is famed to have said that the onus on bettering ties between Tokyo and Seoul rests with South Korea. When asked recently how Tokyo can improve ties with Seoul, Kishida said, “The ball is in South Korea’s court.” He called the Japan-South Korea relationship important but added “it is difficult to develop bilateral ties unless South Korea starts playing by the rules.” South Korea seems to have received his message, which is why just around the time when Kishida won the prime ministerial race, Seoul extended an olive branch to Tokyo.
South Korea’s Chinese Dilemma
The ruling Moon Jae-in administration has made quite a name for itself for going soft on China, even as the people of South Korea are among those who hate China from their very guts. Sisain, a current affairs magazine, and pollster Hankook Research revealed survey results in June that show a deterioration in South Korean public attitude toward China, particularly among the youth. Only 26% of respondents felt positive about China, compared to 57% who felt positively about the United States. With 28 per cent, even South Korea’s traditional foe, Japan, came out ahead of China.
Given the pushback against Chinese influence, a tourist-focused project in South Korea’s eastern Gangwon province had earlier been scrapped. The project was being described as a “Chinatown” project by its opponents. In fact, some 500,000 South Koreans petitioned their government to cancel the tourist attraction, which planned to showcase Chinese culture.
So, it is clear that South Koreans hate China. They are also sceptical about Japan; however, the immediate need right now is for the Indo Pacific to rise as one entity to take on China in the region. Now, Japan has been choosing anti-China hawks as its leaders for quite some time. First, it was Shinzo Abe. Then came the turn of Yoshihide Suga. Now, it is Fumio Kishida – who is among the most pronounced of China hawks in Japan right now. The selection of such leaders as Japan’s prime ministers will soon begin to serve as an example for the people of South Korea, who will, rest assured, make a pivot against China a prerequisite which all Korean prime ministerial hopefuls must fulfil.
The Rise of Conservatives in South Korea
It has been seen that conservatives are usually more active in taking on China, when compared to liberals. So, South Korea might just take the ‘Right’ turn real soon. Whether it be Donald Trump in the U.S. or Narendra Modi in India, conservatives deal with China with an iron fist which leaves the CCP bruised. South Koreans want to bruise China too. So, they might as well realise that only conservatives can help them fulfil their dreams.
36-year-old Lee Jun-seok is a South Korean conservative who is propelling the rise of his party to a position where it would be able to easily challenge the liberal government of the country in next year’s presidential polls. President Moon Jae-in is set to retire next year, and the conservatives are determined to win power in South Korea. Lee aims to revisit South Korea’s rather pacifistic and redundant foreign policy, and bring it in sync with the generational change that he says is being witnessed in South Korea.
Interestingly, the Conservatives in South Korea are performing really well when it comes to approval ratings, even as Moon Jae-in’s popularity sinks. The conservative People Power Party (PPP), led by Lee Jun-seok had an approval rating of 37.1 per cent in July. Furthermore, conservatives recently won by-elections in Seoul and Busan, in a glowing testimony to the conservative party’s rising support in South Korea.
The rise of China hawks not just in Japan, but across the Indo Pacific will motivate the South Korean public to vote conservative in the next elections, which would help their country become a part of the global anti-China alliance which is taking shape.