“Pan-Asianism” has been on the rise in Japan, although it seems to have had only limited impact on government officials — a bit like in postwar Japan, when most intellectuals were socialists while officials were pro-US conservatives. One positive aspect of pan-Asianism is a will to find ways to resolve territorial disputes, such as the one over the Diaoyutai (釣魚台) islands. It is, however, not very likely that pan-Asianism will prevail in this instance.
Before World War II, pan-Asianism was in fact notorious for its connection to fascist militarism, but during the 1980s, Japanese thinking began to change. By the late 1990s, pan-Asianism had entered the intellectual mainstream. The main idea revolves around a de-emphasis of nation-state and sovereignty issues, and it has given Japanese intellectuals a new perspective on China.
The nation-state framework has created countless historical problems between Japan and China. China is persistently demanding an apology from Japan, while Japan persists in interpreting the war from an Asian perspective and portraying itself as a victim of the atomic bomb, suffering on behalf of all of Asia. Beijing, needless to say, does not trust the concept. China can deal with the international community directly without the need to use an Asian platform to bolster its position, which makes it insensitive to the idea of an Asian identity.
Today, intellectuals in South Korea, Taiwan and even China are responding to a new pan-Asianism. They have a shared interest in dissolving Chinese nationalism, which they see as the only way to achieve cooperation between China and other states in East Asia. If they cannot achieve that, they will have to resolve historical problems between China and Japan and cross-strait issues. Without change, effective cooperation between China and Japan and between China and Taiwan will not be possible, and South Korea will also see its position suffer.
Modern supporters of the pan-Asian concept have employed a host of methods to resolve the problem of Chinese nationalism. They treat China as a multi-layered entity consisting of regions, local governments, sectors and countryside, because this would eliminate the zero-sum relationship between sovereignty and nation. According to this version of the pan-Asian concept, the Diaoyutais become the property of Asia and the “Fujian-Taiwan economic zone” (閩台經濟區) or the “economic zone on the west coast of the Taiwan Strait” (海西經濟區) and no longer involves sovereignty issues. With this model, there is no longer be any reason to delve into historical responsibilities for the war.
On the other hand, pan-Asianism is also an identification that distinguishes Asia from Europe and the US. At a time when the US is throwing its weight about internationally, pan-Asianism promotes itself as being self-sufficient. This has attracted not only paleoconservatives upholding traditional but outdated values, but also left-wing anti-US activists suffering from globalization. Pan-Asianism seeks to avoid national confrontation by resisting US hegemony and dissolving Chinese nationalism.
Pan-Asianism is counterbalanced by the Chinese concept of tianxia (天下, “all under heaven”), where every state is fighting for dominance. Each country competes to set the best example based on a common standard: Japan as the eternal leader of the region, South Korea as the most ancient source of Confucian culture, or Taiwan as a bridge between maritime and continental culture. This is a reflection of the tianxia culture, where everyone sees him or herself as a role model. This culture is now a trend in China.
In Taiwan’s political climate, nationalism is surging, giving the tianxia concept the upper hand. The ability to obtain sovereignty has become the only standard for differentiating between good and bad. As accusations of being a green card holder, Taiwanese traitor, or pro-Chinese abound, the Diaoyutai issue becomes the stage for conflict between Taiwan and Japan. With neither party wanting to back down, the island chain is not seen as a shared Asian asset.
China’s and Japan’s joint development of the East China Sea is a reflection of pan-Asianism, and so was Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) visit to Japan. Another significant pan-Asianist experiment was President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) changing his anti-communist, anti-Japanese nationalist position in an attempt to build pro-Chinese and pro-Japanese policies with some level of credibility.
The Diaoyutai issue will not only be a test of Ma’s willingness to move closer to Japan. If the inability to do so leads to problems moving closer to an increasingly Japan-friendly China, the seeds of pan-Asianism will not take root in Taiwan.
Shih Chih-yu is a political science professor at National Taiwan University.
TRANSLATED BY EDDY CHANG
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