Sun, Jan 18, 2015 - Page 8 News List

The historical shackles of East Asia

By Brahma Chellaney

Diplomatic relationships in East Asia have long been held hostage by history. However, the region’s “history problem” has been intensifying lately, with growing nationalism among major actors like China, Japan and South Korea fueling disputes over everything from territory and natural resources to war memorials and textbooks. Can East Asian countries overcome their legacy of conflict to forge a common future that benefits all?

Consider the relationship between the US’ closest East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. Though historical disagreements have long hampered bilateral ties, the increasingly nationalistic stance of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye has aggravated festering tensions. If they fail to work together to stem the revival of bitter historical disputes, their relationship will remain frozen, playing into China’s hands.

And nobody plays the history card with quite as much relish as Beijing, where Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is also relying on nationalism to legitimize his rule. Last year, China introduced two new national memorial days to commemorate China’s long battle against Japanese aggression in World War II: “War against Japanese Aggression Victory Day” on Sept. 3 and “Nanjing Massacre Day” on Dec. 13. What would happen if countries like Vietnam and India dedicated days to remembering China’s aggression toward them since 1949?

By reinforcing negative stereotypes of rival countries, such squabbles over history and remembrance sow fragmentation and instability, and have certainly fueled the region’s recent territorial disputes. Indeed, the politicization of history remains the principal obstacle to reconciliation in East Asia. Repeated attempts to rewrite history — sometimes literally, through textbook revisions — along nationalist lines make it nearly impossible to establish regional institutions.

This should not be the case. Japan and South Korea, for example, are vibrant democracies and export-oriented economic powerhouses with traditionally close cultural ties and many shared values. In other words, they are ideal candidates for collaboration.

US President Barack Obama recognizes this potential, and has promoted increased strategic cooperation between South Korea and Japan to underpin a stronger trilateral security alliance with the US that can balance a rising China. However, Japan and South Korea refuse to let go of history.

To be sure, there is some truth to South Korea’s accusation that Japan is denying some of its past behavior, but it is also true that Park — who has refused to meet formally with Abe until he addresses lingering issues over Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula — has used history to pander to domestic nationalist sentiment. Indeed, adopting a hardline stance has enabled her to whitewash some inconvenient family history: Her father, former South Korean president Park Chung-hee, collaborated with the Japanese military while Korea was under colonial rule.

Abe, too, has stoked tensions, particularly by visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine — a controversial memorial that honors, among others, Class A war criminals from World War II. Though Abe visited the shrine only once — in December 2013 — he felt compelled to do so in response to China’s unilateral declaration of an air-defense identification zone, covering territories that it claims, but does not control.

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