East Asia’s his­tor­i­cal shack­les

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Diplo­matic re­la­tion­ships in East Asia have long been held hostage by his­tory. But 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 Amer­ica’s 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 China, where Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping is also re­ly­ing on na­tion­al­ism to le­git­imise 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 Septem­ber 3 and “Nan­jing Mas­sacre Day” on De­cem­ber 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 politi­ci­sa­tion 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 recog­nises this po­ten­tial, and has pro­moted in­creased strate­gic co­op­er­a­tion be­tween South Korea and Ja­pan in or­der to un­der­pin a stronger tri­lat­eral se­cu­rity al­liance with the US that can bal­ance a ris­ing China. But 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 be­hav­iour. 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 Korea – 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, the dic­ta­tor 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 hon­ours, 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.

Of course, the di­ver­gences be­tween Ja­panese and South Korean his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives go back fur­ther than WWII. More than a cen­tury ago, the Korean ac­tivist Ahn Jung-geun as­sas­si­nated Ja­pan’s first prime min­is­ter, Hirobumi Ito, at the rail­way sta­tion in the Chi­nese city of Harbin, ce­ment­ing Ahn’s sta­tus as a hero in Korea and a ter­ror­ist in Ja­pan. Ito’s im­age can be seen on Ja­pan’s 1,000-yen note; Ahn has ap­peared on a 200-won postage stamp in South Korea.

Last year, Park asked Xi to honor Ahn. Xi seized the op­por­tu­nity to drive a wedge be­tween Amer­ica’s two main Asian al­lies, and built a memo­rial to Ahn. Ja­pan re­sponded by blast­ing China for glo­ri­fy­ing a ter­ror­ist and prop­a­gat­ing a “onesided” view of his­tory – a move that, Ja­pan as­serted, was “not con­ducive to build­ing peace and sta­bil­ity.”

Such con­flicts have a clear cat­a­lyst: Asia’s ris­ing pros­per­ity. As their economies have ex­panded, Asian coun­tries have gained the con­fi­dence to con­struct and ex­alt a new past, in which they ei­ther down­play their own ag­gres­sions or high­light stead­fast­ness in the face of bru­tal vic­tim­i­sa­tion.

All coun­tries’ le­git­imis­ing nar­ra­tives blend his­tor­i­cal fact and myth. But, in some cases, his­tor­i­cal lega­cies can gain ex­ces­sive in­flu­ence, over­whelm­ing lead­ers’ ca­pac­ity to make ra­tio­nal pol­icy choices. That ex­plains why Park has sought closer ties with China, even though South Korea’s nat­u­ral re­gional part­ner is demo­cratic Ja­pan. One source of hope stems from Abe’s land­slide vic­tory in the re­cent snap gen­eral elec­tion, which gives him the po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal to reach out to Park with a grand bar­gain: If Ja­pan ex­presses re­morse more clearly for its mil­i­taris­tic past, South Korea will agree to leave his­tor­i­cal griev­ances out of of­fi­cial pol­icy.

Ja­pan and South Korea can­not change the past. But they can strive to shape a more co­op­er­a­tive fu­ture. As a Rus­sian proverb suc­cinctly puts it, “For­get the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes.”

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