Japan's Yasukuni Shrine is an object of some controversy across Northeast Asia. Though it is meant to honor Japan's war dead, many across the region see it as a symbol of Japan's lack of penitence for war crimes against civilians in Korea, China and elsewhere. To commemorate the 71st anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific on Monday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering to Yasukuni Shrine instead of visiting it himself, something he has not done since December 2013. South Korean President Park Geun Hye responded to Abe's tribute with a gently conciliatory comment, calling for a "future-oriented" relationship with Tokyo.
On their own, Abe's decision not to visit Yasukuni and Park's reaction are not surprising. After all, Abe has not visited the shrine in almost three years, since his last trip met with stern rebukes from his Northeast Asian neighbors. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea have been steadily moving toward a guarded rapprochement for some time, encouraged by support and diplomatic pressure from the United States and by their shared wariness of an increasingly powerful and assertive China. But Monday's events are notable nevertheless, highlighting the radical changes afoot in Northeast Asia today and underscoring South Korea's delicate role in them.
Over the past two decades, China's emergence as the world's second-largest economy, coupled with its growing capacity to turn wealth into military power, has remade East Asia. In its wake, China's neighbors — as well as more distant countries — have had to rethink their international positions and interests. Tokyo has worked to revitalize Japan's economy and to expand and eventually normalize its military forces. Washington meanwhile has struggled to divert more of its diplomatic and defense resources from perennially problematic regions such as the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific. As Beijing revises its regional interests and aspirations to accommodate its newfound clout, its neighbors adjust their own positions accordingly. This process yields new configurations in interstate relations — ranging from strategic partnerships to tactical detentes — as countries adapt to the changes underway.
At the center of it all is South Korea. By virtue of its relative economic heft, location and military power, Seoul has the freedom to shape regional outcomes through its actions and strategic choices. Neither China nor Japan nor the United States can afford to alienate South Korea and, in doing so, risk driving it into the others' hands. At the same time, none can dictate Seoul's behavior. This gives South Korea ample opportunity to balance its relationship with each against the others, thereby ensuring its relative autonomy and freedom to maneuver.
So far, Seoul has managed this balancing act adeptly. South Korea has maintained and even strengthened military and diplomatic cooperation with the United States, as evidenced by its recent agreement to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile system on the peninsula. It has made cautious moves to reconcile wartime grievances with Japan to pave the way for a friendlier bilateral relationship and deeper trilateral ties with Japan and the United States. All the while, South Korea has tried to balance these relationships with its need to preserve stable political and robust economic ties to Beijing.
Beijing, in turn, has had to temper its response to developments such as warming Korean-Japanese ties or the THAAD agreement, so as not to alienate South Korea. China threatened punitive economic measures over the THAAD deployment, but even so, Beijing recognizes that there is little it can do to keep South Korea from bolstering defense ties with the United States in response to North Korea's provocations. Seoul has maintained a fundamentally positive relationship with all three of Asia's main players despite their growing divergences, and in doing so, it has reaped substantial economic, military and diplomatic rewards over the past decade.
As the geopolitics of Northeast Asia heat up, however, Seoul will struggle to maintain its delicate balance. Provided China does not implode politically and economically, it will become only more assertive in pursuing its regional interests in the coming years. And as long as China's rise continues, Japan and the United States will only redouble their efforts to rein Beijing in. These regional dynamics will only exacerbate an underlying conflict in South Korean politics and society: Much of the country's populace still harbors deep enmity toward Japan and mistrusts Chinese and American intentions. Amid these changes, it is unclear whether and how South Korea's government will keep the multiplying threads of its foreign policy from becoming impossibly entangled. Until now, Seoul has enjoyed the benefits of not having to choose one side over another, and instead exploiting the interests of both. But this freedom from choice is unlikely to last forever.