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U.S. Recruits Asian Allies To Confront China

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. is trying to rally its allies to confront China over any number of issues - COVID-19, Hong Kong, trade, among others. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul that U.S. pressure puts Japan and South Korea in a box. They have to choose between their main economic partner, China, and their main security provider, the United States.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In April, Japan announced a stimulus package to counter the economic impact of the epidemic. It earmarked about $2 billion of it to entice Japanese companies to move production out of China. Norihiro Nakayama is a member of a group of ruling party lawmakers calling for the restructuring of Japan's supply chains.

NORIHIRO NAKAYAMA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "This policy is not something we're doing because the U.S. requested it, I can assure you of that," he says. "Japan is ahead of the U.S. where such policies remain on the drawing board." The U.S. has also proposed an economic prosperity network, a list of trusted trading partners who would decrease economic reliance on China. Nakayama says that trust comes from shared values.

NAKAYAMA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "Shared values means, for example, freedom, rule of law, equality, neutrality and transparency," he says. "Markets and supply chains depend on the extent to which we share those values." As a democracy, Japan certainly shares values with the U.S. But Nakayama adds that it also shares economic interests with China.

NAKAYAMA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "We think China is very important, especially its market," he says, adding, "I think one of Japan's strengths is its location, which has good access to China." In recent years, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have just begun to thaw out relations after a long cold spell. Choi Eunmi, a Japan expert at the Asan Institute, a Seoul-based think tank, says Abe is in no position to reverse the thaw as he slumps into his final year in office with his approval ratings at an all-time low.

CHOI EUNMI: (Through translator) Improved relations between China and Japan is a card Abe could show as his diplomatic achievement. And without it, things will be even harder for him, so it's hard to expect that Japan's strategy or response to China will drastically change.

KUHN: Like Japan, South Korea is tightly tied to China's economy. And President Trump has put Seoul in a tough spot by inviting President Moon Jae-In to an expanded G-7 summit meeting, the focus of which is criticizing Beijing.

Daniel Sneider, an expert on Japanese and South Korean Foreign Policy at Stanford University, says South Korea's policy options towards China are limited in part by North Korea.

DANIEL SNEIDER: They have to, in some sense, you know, listen to the Chinese because they know the Chinese have such huge influence in the north. And their goal is absolutely focused on engagement with the north.

KUHN: China is wooing South Korea, trying to present itself as a more reliable economic and security partner than the U.S., says Lee Seong-hyon, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute, a think tank near Seoul. So far, he says, that sales pitch is not very attractive to Seoul. But by trying to squeeze Seoul and Tokyo to pay a lot more of the cost of the U.S. military presence in their countries, he says, the U.S. is seriously undermining its own alliances in Asia.

LEE SEONG-HYON: If America continues to isolate, alienate its allies and friends in the region in the way they have been doing, China will see that there is a winning chance of getting the hearts and minds of American allies in Asia.

KUHN: He says he hopes that American diplomacy towards its allies could be a bit more nuanced and sophisticated.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAZULI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.