No one expects Japan and China, the great powers of East Asia, to co-ordinate geopolitical priorities. The relationship is too historically loaded and modern priorities are entirely out of sync, given both Japan's relationship with the United States and China's increasingly assertive posturing. It's just not going to happen.
But what about Japan and South Korea?
For years, East Asia's most hopeful democracies have been unable to co-operate meaningfully in what should be a natural and mutually beneficial partnership. They have instead bickered bitterly over a brutal legacy that stretches back more than 70 years. Although there may always be a vague sense of ill will about Japan's colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945, South Koreans' real unease was most acute with regard to so-called "comfort women," who were girls and women from across Asia – and many from Korea – forced into the Japanese Imperial Army's war-time brothels. The non-euphemistic term for this is sex slavery, and when I was in Seoul in March the issue was once again dominating the front pages of major newspapers, more than 70 years later.
Now, in a landmark agreement this week, Japan has apologized anew for the practice and pledged $8.3-million (U.S.) to a fund set up for survivors in what both sides said was a "final and irreversible resolution." Does this new agreement have the power to change the course of Asian geopolitics at a time when the U.S. needs a united front against China, or will it join all the other war-time apologies that are issued, criticized, forgotten and buried beneath the remarkably long-lasting, ever-lingering hatreds of East Asia?
The surprise deal was immediately hailed in Japan as a coup for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seemed to have finally settled Japan's grim historical record in Korea, after previously attempting to downplay Japan's past abuses. This apology was as unambiguous as Mr. Abe was likely to give, offered remorse and considered the immeasurable suffering of the women – rather than trying to justify or fudge the history, as many on Japan's right still do. The money being pledged also came straight from the Japanese government, which was meant to add an air of formality and officialdom.
But the agreement received a more muted response in Korea, where President Park Geun-hye, who is broadly unpopular, has squeezed anti-Japanese feelings for all they are worth. Former sex slaves and opposition politicians immediately criticized the deal for coming about without the participation of the "comfort women" themselves, for failing to acknowledge legal culpability and for not offering formal financial reparations. Former sex slaves said they were also angry Seoul agreed to discuss with them the possible removal of a statue – placed directly outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul – of a former sex slave sitting next to an empty chair, a symbol of the "comfort women" who died waiting for a full apology from Japan. One group of survivors called the deal "shocking" and said it was an act of "humiliating diplomacy" from Seoul.
Unlike in Europe, which has largely moved on from the scars of the Second World War, memories of Japan's vicious imperial sweep across much of East and Southeast Asia are still vivid – and influence regional geopolitics to this day. South Korea and Japan still do not share sensitive military information, preferring to rout it through the United States, despite the obviously shared security concerns over China's growing assertiveness in the region and the perennial problem of North Korea.
The U.S. has constantly urged Tokyo and Seoul over the years to reconcile historical disagreements and move forward in a more united fashion on matters of regional importance such as the Six-Party Talks involving North Korea. In a media briefing, a senior State Department official said the deal could be as transformative to regional relations as the monumental Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal between the U.S., Canada, Japan and other Pacific nations.
Some, of course, argue that apologies in international politics are too often counterproductive. The academic Jennifer Lind has noted that reconciliation between nations does not necessarily require a formal apology – let alone many formal apologies, as in Japan's case – because the apology provides a platform for nationalist elements in both countries to again debate and disagree over the facts.
But laying aside the criticisms of civil-society groups and opposition politicians in both countries, who have an obvious stake in milking the issue forever, the deal marks an enormously positive step in Japanese-Korean relations. Better military co-operation between Japan and South Korea might dampen China's appetite for territorial disputes over islands in the East and South China seas, and will certainly help the U.S. execute its ongoing pivot to Asia. It will also prevent North Korea from using historical grievances as a convenient wedge to distract and divide the coalition of countries concerned about Pyongyang, and might dissuade the dictatorship from its destabilizing antics.
Japan has already indicated that it is ready to discuss the "comfort women" with Taiwan, though conversations on the issue with Beijing are likely far off. Still, Mr. Abe and Ms. Park – both arch-conservatives who thrive on the support of nationalist elements in their respective countries – will not be in power forever, and leadership transitions might generate additional warmth to thawing relations.
Though imperfect, the deal does represent an attempt to move forward peacefully, without forever nursing the sting of historic abuses. That sort of closure is something northeast Asia desperately needs.