Asia's Game of Thrones
Japan and South Korea Hug Tighter

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore over the weekend, Japan and South Korea established a direct line of communication between defense ministers, Reuters reports:

Japanese Defence Minister Gen Nakatani said on Saturday that Japan and South Korea agreed to expand an emergency communication system between their defense ministries, including adding a new direct line between defense ministers.

Tensions have been high in the region since early January when North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test. It has followed that with a satellite launch and tests of various missiles, most recently a failed launch on Tuesday.

“What it means is that we will make use of phones for emergency communication, when security-related emergencies such as a missile launch occur, and communication and coordination between the defense authorities of the two countries are needed,” Nakatani told reporters at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional security forum in Singapore.

The arrangement not only builds on, but will probably hasten the ongoing thaw between Japan and South Korea. Tokyo and Seoul have been working to improve relations, from an initially shaky yet still standing settlement over comfort women to “unprecedented” joint military training exercises. Japan and South Korea have also been in discussions over intelligence sharing. A recent meeting between China and North Korea that signaled Beijing’s intention to remain close with Pyongyang only makes Japan–South Korea rapprochement more likely and, officials in both countries surely feel, more urgent.

Of course, hotlines are relatively low-cost tools in geopolitics. Earlier this year, Seoul’s calls to a special hotline arranged with Beijing were never even answered. One easy way for Japan to prove itself as a better ally than China would be simply to pick up the phone.

South Koreans and the Japanese are deeply wary of each other, the result of mutual mistrust dating back centuries. Well aware of the need to assuage domestic concerns on the streets of Tokyo and Seoul, Japan has been courting South Korean goodwill while restraining previously-fanned jingoism at home. Tokyo’s boldest move so far has been to pass a bill aimed at curbing hate speech, making a point to open the door for the prohibition of anti-Korean demonstrations. The law itself is rather vague, but in a recent ruling a judge used it to enforce bans on anti-Korea rallies. The Japan Times:

The Yokohama District Court’s Kawasaki branch handed down a provisional injunction Thursday banning an anti-Korean group from holding demonstrations within 500 meters from the office of a citizens’ group fighting hate speech.

The court prohibited a Kawasaki man who had repeatedly organized rallies ostracizing Korean residents from holding racist events or letting a third party join such events.

Seikyusha, a Kawasaki-based social welfare service corporation that operates the citizens’ organization fighting ethnic discrimination in the southern part of the city — home to a large ethnic Korean population, asked for the injunction on May 27, as the man was planning to hold an anti-Korean protest this coming Sunday.

Japan continues to deepen relationships with a portfolio of regional powers, raising the stakes even higher with Beijing. This past year, Japan has reached major agreements with several Southeast Asian nations and with IndiaAs pressure from China continues to mount, Asian leaders are trying to put aside old disputes as security concerns take center stage.

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