Anyone who follows the politics of Northeast Asia must be wondering whether things may finally be about to change for the better. Not only have the leaders of the region’s big three — China, Japan and South Korea — recently held much delayed talks, but the presidents of China and Taiwan have finally had a face-to-face meeting as well. Does this really mark an important turning point for this vitally important region as a whole?
Judging from the joint statement issued after the trilateral talks, one might hope so. In addition to signing a number of deals designed to boost trade, China’s Premier Li Keqiang, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to ‘march down the path of co-existence and cooperation’. The puzzle for outsiders is why it has proved so hard to get to this point. Why is intra-regional politics usually so dysfunctional in Northeast Asia given the obvious potential benefits of cooperation?
The comparison with Europe’s experience is often made and it remains instructive. In the aftermath of a conflict that ravaged Europe, cooperation seemed sensible, even vital. Europe’s shell-shocked leaders were encouraged in this belief by a newly hegemonic United States that saw a European economic renaissance and political cooperation as essential components in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union.
In Asia things were rather different. While the Cold War’s geopolitics encouraged integration in Europe, in East Asia it entrenched existing divides. Until Deng Xiaoping began the process of opening China up to Western capitalism, it remained on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and the notional enemy of Japan — the poster child for the beneficial economic effects of post-war US dominance. Inclusive regional cooperation of any sort was effectively impossible in such a strategic environment.
The divided Korean peninsula and Taiwan’s unresolved status are the most visible and problematic relics of this period. Important as the Cold War is in explaining Northeast Asia’s frigid relations though, it is important to recognise that it was overlaid on, and actually reinforced, pre-existing animosities, tensions and long-held resentments. It’s easy to understand why South Korea and China might feel aggrieved about the horrors inflicted by Japanese imperialism, but not too many people have direct memories of those events now.
Why have generations of Northeast Asia’s political leaders found it so difficult to replicate the European experience and put the past behind them? Part of the answer can be found in Europe and the actions of German leaders — and people — in fully acknowledging what went on during World War II. The contrast with Japan is striking and illuminating.
While the Japanese people have displayed an admirable and understandable antipathy for militarism, this has done little to transform their relations with either South Korea or China. Political leaders in Japan and China have a lot to answer for in this regard.
Shinzo Abe is the latest in a long line of Japanese leaders who have found it difficult to put the past unambiguously behind them by fully acknowledging the impact of Japanese militarism during the first half of the twentieth century. China’s leaders in particular have been all too happy to exploit such insensitivity and stoke nationalist sentiment, which needs little encouragement at the best of times.
While all this may perhaps be well known, it still takes some explaining. Why is it that greater economic interdependence and the underlying logic of comparative advantage haven’t worked the same magic in Asia as they did in Europe? Despite significant economic ties between China and Japan, not to mention China and Taiwan, this hasn’t been sufficient to transform popular sentiment. On the contrary, many in Taiwan fear that close economic ties may be part of China’s long-term reunification plans.
Leadership plainly matters, but perhaps that’s not enough. In Europe’s case, the stakes could not have been higher and the basis for cooperation more compelling. Is it possible that the absence of the same sort of geopolitical imperatives reduced the incentive for more effective diplomacy in Northeast Asia previously? Is it entirely coincidental that Chinese President Xi Jinping finally decided to meet his Taiwanese counterpart, Ma Ying-jeou, at a time when geopolitical tensions between China and the United States have been ratcheted up significantly?
Given Europe’s recent economic and political problems, some Asian leaders plainly think there is not much to be learned from the EU. This may make the idea of regional cooperation less attractive and harder to achieve. But the EU may be inadvertently providing yet another possible lesson for Northeast Asia: cooperation is difficult, but without it nationalist tensions long thought dormant can re-emerge.
In Northeast Asia such tensions are already close to the surface. China’s growing assertiveness and Japan’s not unrelated desire to become a ‘normal’, more militarily self-reliant country, have done little to improve regional relations. Add the entirely unpredictable North Korean state into the mix, and one might think there were many reasons for confidence-building regional dialogues.
Plainly, there are many good reasons for pursuing regional diplomacy for the collective future interests of Northeast Asia, despite the constraining burdens of history. But whether the current generation of leaders in Northeast Asia will be any more successful in achieving this than their predecessors have been remains to be seen.
Mark Beeson is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Western Australia.
This article first appeared at East Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original.