Political transitions in East Asia promise to mark a defining moment in the region’s jittery geopolitics. After the ascension of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), regarded by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as its own man, Japan seems set to swing to the right in its impending election — an outcome likely to fuel nationalist passion on both sides of the Sino-Japanese rivalry.
Japan’s expected rightward turn comes more than three years after voters put the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in power. By contrast, South Korea’s election — scheduled for Wednesday, just three days after the Japanese go to the polls — could take that country to the left, after the nearly five-year rule of rightist President Lee Myung-bak, who proved to be a polarizing leader.
These political transitions could compound East Asia’s challenges, which include the need to institute a regional balance of power and dispense with historical baggage that weighs down interstate relationships, particularly among China, Japan and South Korea. Booming trade in the region has failed to mute or moderate territorial and other disputes; on the contrary, it has only sharpened regional geopolitics and unleashed high-stakes brinkmanship. Economic interdependence cannot deliver regional stability unless rival states undertake genuine efforts to mend their political relations.
The scandals surrounding the top aides to Lee — nicknamed “the Bulldozer” from his career as a construction industry executive — have complicated matters for the ruling Saenuri Party’s candidate, Park Geun-hye, and buoyed the hopes of her leftist rival, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party.
Park is the daughter of former South Korean president Park Chung-hee, who seized power in a military coup in 1961.
Reining in South Korea’s powerful chaebol (family-run conglomerates) has become a key issue in the presidential election, with even Park favoring tighter control over them, although it was her father’s regime that helped build them with generous government support. Her populist stance on the chaebol suggests that, if elected, she might similarly pander to nationalist sentiment by taking a tough stance against Japan, especially to play down her father’s service in Japan’s military while Korea was under Japanese colonial rule.
However, even if Moon becomes president, the new strains in South Korea’s relationship with Japan, owing to the revival of historical issues, may not be easy to mend. Earlier this year, Lee, at the last minute, canceled the scheduled signing of the “General Security of Military Information Agreement” with Japan, which would have established military intelligence-sharing between the two countries, both US allies, for the first time.
Lee also scrapped a bilateral plan to finalize a military-related Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement. Weeks later, he provocatively visited the contested islets known as Dokdo in South Korea (which controls them) and Takeshima in Japan.
Meanwhile, China has cast a long shadow over the Japanese parliamentary elections. In recent months, China has launched a new war of attrition by sending patrol ships frequently to the waters around the Japanese-controlled Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), which are also claimed by Taiwan. This physical assertiveness followed often-violent anti-Japanese protests in China in September, while a continuing informal boycott of Japanese goods has led to a sharp fall in Japan’s exports to China, raising the risk of another Japanese recession.