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Gov. Bill Richardson Hill OpEd on US, Japan and South Korea

Despite persistent instability in the Middle East, America’s national security policy in the 21stcentury will be shaped by dynamics in Asia. There, an increasingly militaristic China threatens to undermine seven decades of American policy, which in its commitment to freedom of trade and navigation, expanded the borders of freedom and lifted millions out of poverty. Confronting this challenge requires robust American alliances capable of projecting power and influence throughout the region.

U.S. policy in Asia has for decades depended on the strength of our relationships with Japan and South Korea. This tripartite alliance grew out of Cold War necessities to become a robust partnership based on common values and interests.  But these ties have been weakened in recent years by demands for Japan to apologize continuously for its actions during World War II.

The United States should seize the opportunity presented by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent statement to commemorate the end of World War II to launch a concerted diplomatic effort to reconcile our two allies. This effort should focus on eliminating the need for a cycle of apologies and focusing our collective energy on confronting the clear threats we face throughout the region.

Decennial statements of Japanese contrition have become a much-scrutinized tradition in capitals across the world. Each word has been parsed for significance and for any trace of equivocation. Abe’s statement, however, painfully examines the choices Japan made that led to war. And as someone who has negotiated with governments across Asia for decades, I read his words as a sincere expression of regret. They express grief for the lives lost during that conflict, offer condolences to the victims, and speak to a Japanese obligation to carry its history with it from generation to generation.

By fully embracing the past, Abe delivered a clear and decisive message to Japan’s neighbors about the role it hopes to play in the future. It is a symbol not of Japanese weakness, but of growing Japanese strength. Over the past few years, Japan has taken steps to reinvigorate its economy and engage more meaningfully in the world. Just last month the prime minister won a tough fight to expand Japan’s ability to exercise collective self-defense. Japan has also taken a leading role in negotiating the Trans Pacific Partnership, which would bind 40 percent of the world in a free trade zone that would be a counterweight to China’s economic ambitions in the region.

And it is precisely because of China’s growing militarism that Abe’s statement is so important. Over the past several years, China’s actions in East Asia have grown only more troubling. It has declared a unilateral air defense zone over the Senkaku Islands, built new deep-water ports for its naval vessels across the Indian Ocean, and constructed new military bases on reclaimed reefs in the South China Sea. These actions, taken together, represent a clear threat to the liberal order the United States and our allies have established and preserved at great cost over the past seven decades.

China’s actions are justifiably alarming for American allies in the region and are spurring many countries to look past historical animus to forge new partnerships out of necessity. Vietnam, for example, recently concluded a free trade agreement with South Korea, which was responsible for thousands of civilian deaths during the Vietnam War. Today, South Korea is Vietnam’s largest trading partner.

Abe’s declaration offers South Korea a similar opportunity to internalize history and forge a new, stronger relationship with Japan. This détente would not only facilitate the construction of a united front against China’s actions in the region, but also would allow closer coordination to combat the ballistic missile and conventional military threat from North Korea, facilitate South Korea’s ascension into negotiations over the TPP, and consolidate the growing ties between both countries and India. And strong, decisive American leadership is required for this endeavor to succeed.

History has always held a powerful grip over our relationship with the world. Sometimes it serves as a foundation for broader cooperation and sometimes it serves as an impediment to progress. Abe’s conciliatory statement offers an important opportunity for broader reconciliation that the United States should seize. And as South Korean President Park Geun-hye prepares to visit Washington in October, there is no time like the present.

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