It’s no secret that the United States would like to build up its network of allies to buffer against Chinese expansion in Asia. And the easiest way to do that is to build up a strong network of allied countries, akin to NATO, to create a coordinated and controlled response against any potential Chinese aggression. Problem is, Asia has a long and complicated internal history and many would-be members of America’s alliance in fact rival one another.

United States

Perhaps no other country better personifies this than South Korea and Japan. Korea has long found itself caught between the power players of its two larger neighbors, China and Japan. Wars, puppet states, invasions, political maneuverings, the list of aggressions against Korea perpetuated by Japanese and Chinese leaders is nearly endless.

Asia has complex history

Korea suffered greatly during World War II at the hands of Japanese aggression. Japan, however, has refused to apologize for its aggressions during World War II, a situation that has kept tensions high. Japan all but ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945 and while decades have passed since, resentment remains high.

One might think that Japan and the United States would be able to point to China’s intervention in the Korean War and resulting partitioning of the country as reasons to support Japan over China. So far Koreans view China more favorably than Japan.

Polls in 2013 showed that three times more Koreans viewed China more favorably than Japan. Indeed, tensions have gotten so high in the past that Japanese leaders even hinted that the United States might be barred from using military bases in Japan to support South Korea in its on-going stalemate against North Korea.

United States attempting to shore up alliances

President Obama has been leading the United States in its Asia pivot. With deficits, a weak economy, and budget cuts for as far as the eyes can see, however, resources are scarce and alliances are more important now than at any point since the Cold War.

This past Tuesday, Obama met with the leaders of South Korea and Japan for a peacemaking session. While this might seem like a minor deal to some, South Korean and Japanese leaders have not met in an official capacity since May 2012.

In December last year Vice President Biden made a trip to Japan to urge Prime Minister Abe to avoid antagonizing South Korea. Abe ignored the plea and made a visit to a war memorial to honor those Japanese soldiers who died in World War II. This move irritated both the Koreans and Chinese.

Whether or not President Obama can bring the two nations closer together remains to be seen, but an official meeting is a step in the right direction. And repairing relations may prove to be essential for the United States in its efforts to contain China.