US President Barack Obama is certain to heap praise on South Korea and Japan as he attends back-to-back summits but some experts see a subtle shift as he views Seoul as the more dynamic ally.I've said this many times before: A lot of people looked at the very leftist Roh Moohyun administration and the right-wing Bush administration and saw the inevitable butting of heads as a sign the inescapable "death of the alliance." Now that there's a right-of-center president in Seoul and a pragmatically left-of-center chief in Washington, but a rare leftist in Tokyo, people are saying the same thing about Naoto Kan bringing an end to the US-Japanese partnership that they said about Roh Moohyun.
In separate remarks this year that made diplomats run to their thesauruses, Obama called South Korea "the linchpin" of regional security and Japan "one of the cornerstones" of security throughout the world.
The distinction may seem academic but it has quietly concerned some Japanese policymakers who have long viewed their country as, well, the linchpin of US strategy in Asia.
Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said he has spoken with US officials who described Obama's "linchpin" remark -- made when he met South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak in June in Canada -- as a deliberate, if nuanced, sign of the administration's views.
Lee has been a steadfast US ally, coordinating moves in a standoff with communist North Korea. It is a striking change from Lee's liberal predecessor Roh Moo-Hyun, who openly criticized US troops and US policy toward the North.
In Japan, the center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) last year ended decades of conservative rule and initially tried to win more concessions on a deal to move a controversial US air base on Okinawa island.
"Certainly under Lee Myung-Bak you have an administration that's far more forward-looking to transform the alliance into having broader responsibilities," Klingner said.
"Compare that with the DPJ government in Tokyo, which came into office downplaying the importance of the alliance and seeking a relationship that was more equidistant between Washington and Beijing," he said.
But it's nonsense. Like in Seoul, even the leftists in Tokyo know how important the US-led security umbrella is for Japan, and the good news for them — regardless of the meaning of linchpin or cornerstone — Japan will be a very welcome partner into the US-led alliance for as long as it wants to be. Indeed, if there is any rise in stature for South Korea, it is not because Japan has dropped, but simply because South Korea has been able to step up at a time when it was needed (and continues to be needed).
Being the diplomatic sort that I am, I'd like to say that both Seoul and Tokyo are linchpins in East Asia. And Tokyo and Seoul should be working together a great deal in that regard, particularly in things where Tokyo doesn't run afoul of its pacifist constitution, like protecting shipping lanes from piracy.
Besides, Japan should recognize it has something Korea never will: A town called Obama.