Unprepared pivot to Asia
US must think more about national, historical rivalries
Seoul and Tokyo are licking their wounds in the aftermath of their abortive signing of a bilateral intelligence-sharing agreement. Feeling no less disappointed would be Washington, which has prodded its two East Asian allies to get closer to each other to form a tighter trilateral alliance. If the United States keeps helping Japan to push through this accord while a pro-U.S., pro-Japanese government is in power in South Korea, however, it will be shortsighted diplomacy hurting its long-term interests.
Japan, in a reaction to economic and political declines, is apparently gripped by massive fervor for revivalism. Both ruling and opposition Japanese political parties are competing to return their country to the post-World War II era, discarding their pacifist Constitution and become a ``normal” country, meaning capable of waging overseas military operations.
Almost not a week goes by without the Japanese officials coming up with one revivalist idea or another. The government there is moving to ``nationalize” the disputed Senkaku, or Diaoyutai in Chinese, islands, triggering angry reactions from both China and Taiwan. Tokyo is also pushing to list the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ wartime shipyard in Nagasaki ― where thousands of forced Korean laborers toiled and about 1,500 of them died because of the U.S. atomic bombing ― as a UNESCO cultural heritage.
These are worrisome moves, hardly imaginable had Tokyo paid even the slightest attention to the sentiments of its two Northeast Asian neighbors, however ardent the Japanese leaders’ desire is to find a breakthrough for internal inertia via provocation abroad.
Not a few Koreans ― and Chinese for that matter ― may be thinking Japan’s rash acts based on brazen justification of the past would be possible without the tacit endorsement of the United States.
No Asian governments have said it publicly but they feel as if Washington is goading its past rival to contain a present one. Seventy years is not a short time, but the U.S. foreign policy planners appear to underestimate the resentment most East Asians, especially Koreans and Chinese, have toward their past aggressor, which cannot be dissipated so easily especially when the invader itself has shown little genuine signs of repentance.
Most Koreans feel grateful toward the U.S. as their liberator and benefactor. Going back further in history, however, there are views that regard America as the endorser of Japan’s colonization of Korea through the Taft-Katsura agreement, and later, as a divider of the Korean Peninsula.
The ambivalence many Koreans have toward the United States turns to skepticism whenever America appears to defend the former colonizer. Even a seemingly minor move, such as the U.S. support for describing the body of water between Korea and Japan as the Sea of Japan, instead of East Sea, can deepen their suspicion about Washington’s intention.
The Barack Obama administration’s pivot to Asia may be inevitable, given this continent’s economic vibrancy and strategic importance. But Washington needs to take national and historical animosities among major Asian players as well as its own past policy mistakes into account in coming back to Asia.
Most of all, no new U.S. policy should result in reviving a Cold War, which has long ended in Europe, in Asia.