China’s unilateral declaration of its “air defense identification zone” over a large area that includes disputed territories has escalated tensions in Northeast Asia, upsetting prospects for regional peace and prosperity. As conflicts over territorial claims and unresolved historical issues threaten regional stability and pose a grave challenge for U.S. foreign policy, policymakers seek ways to prevent rising tensions from getting out of control. A historical understanding of the root causes of these conflicts seems salient.
What makes the recent uptick in tensions worrisome is that the adage “democracies don’t go to war against each other” does not seem to apply here, not only because China is not a democracy but also because of the abortive nature of Japan’s postwar democracy. That China is not a democracy needs no explanation: The country has been ruled since 1949 by a communist dictatorship that has demonstrated over the decades its willingness to use coercion and force both abroad and at home against its own people in order to maintain its grip on power.
Japan, officially, has been a parliamentary democracy for decades, with a nonaggressive role in world affairs, underpinned by a “Peace Constitution” enacted during the postwar Allied occupation of the country. However, the problem is that true grassroots democracy has never taken deep root in Japan since the country’s opening to the modern world in the 19th century. Western-style democracy did not come about through grassroots agitation and struggles for democracy by the Japanese people.
In both the Meiji Restoration and the post-1945 Peace Constitution, changes were imposed on the Japanese people from the top, in “revolutions from above.” Despite some progress towards more liberal and participatory forms of governance in the late 19th century and in the 1920s, prewar Japanese democracy degenerated into the fascist militarism of the 1930s and 1940s. In the postwar era, the Allied occupation attempted to foster democracy in Japan, including an effort to root out vestiges of fascism and militarism, but the effort was cut short by the rise of Cold War confrontation, which led to the rehabilitation of former war criminals and other extreme right-wing elements in a crusade to combat communist threats.
With its national security guaranteed by the United States, postwar Japan focused its energy on economic growth, not on grassroots democracy, and, unlike Germany, glossed over questions of its place in modern history. Despite efforts by some Japanese citizen groups and politicians to acknowledge Japan’s acts of aggression and seek reconciliation with neighboring countries, the general view of Japan in other Asian nations is that the country has not adequately addressed issues from its imperialistic phase.
Given this background, Japan’s recent turn to a more vigorous military posture with nationalistic overtones under Shinzo Abe ― a grandson of Kishi Nobusuke, a member of Tojo’s War Cabinet and a war crimes suspect who served as Japan’s prime minister in the late 1950s ― has only fueled more apprehensions in other Asian capitals about a future revival of Japanese militarism.
Considering this historical record, what can be done for the cause of peace in East Asia? First, Beijing’s rulers need to realize that they are playing a dangerous game by abetting, if not fueling, the Chinese people’s nationalism over historical issues and also by unilaterally escalating territorial tensions.
Since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy has come to rest on delivering economic growth and on its nationalistic credentials. If nationalistic fervor and territorial tensions get out of hand, this can jeopardize not only continued economic growth but also the CCP’s nationalistic credentials, as any perceived weakness or ineffectiveness on the part of the CCP in dealing with other nations on emotionally charged territorial and historical issues can turn the Chinese people’s nationalism against the CCP.
The party’s leaders will do well to keep in mind that mass protests against Japan or the U.S. can easily turn into anti-regime protests. They will also do well to realize that unilaterally ratcheting up territorial tensions will only help the nationalist right-wing in Japan gain more public support, thus heightening the prospects for a revival of Japanese militarism, an outcome not in their own interest. Moreover, Beijing’s uninhibited pursuit of territorial ambitions will only drive its Asian neighbors into an anti-China coalition in alliance with the U.S.
Second, Tokyo’s leaders must realize that they need to be more sensitive to the feelings of their Asian neighbors and do more in order to adequately address the record of Japan’s modern aggressions. An official Japanese government apology for the use of sex slaves during World War II is a good way to start, as is a move to stop efforts to whitewash Japan’s modern aggressions in the history textbooks. Japan’s leaders need to bear in mind that further leanings towards deliberate historical amnesia, if not outright distortion of the facts, coupled with an increasingly assertive military posture, will further inflame anti-Japanese nationalism in China and Korea and heighten the risk of a territorial dispute escalating into a catastrophic war.
Moreover, they need to realize that such leanings will strain Japan’s alliance with the U.S., as Washington faces a limit in the extent to which it can sacrifice its own vital national interests, including its ties to other Asian nations, in order to unconditionally support Japan. Tokyo’s leaders must not forget that Japan’s own economic revival, on which their electoral success depends, is not possible without regional stability and a minimum amount of friendly sentiment from other Asian economies. Japan’s neighbors are some of its largest trading partners and Japanese firms have invested heavily in these countries.
Third, it is incumbent on the peoples of East Asia ― the Chinese, the Japanese and the Koreans ― to get more actively involved in the governance and foreign policy of their respective nations by better organizing themselves for their own political empowerment. In this age of the information revolution and social media networks, this is becoming more possible. People of East Asia, like people everywhere, desire peace and prosperity, above all else. It is the politicians and governments who manipulate nationalism and reinterpret history to serve their own political ends.
By taking charge of their own nations’ governance and foreign policies, and by reaching out to their neighboring countries for better mutual understanding and stronger people-to-people ties to prevent conflicts from getting out of hand, the people of East Asia can forge a common destiny of mutual reconciliation, peace and prosperity.
It is incumbent on the people of the United States, who do not want their country getting dragged into a deadly war in East Asia, to join in this work of building a more participatory and grassroots democratic community in East Asia and transnational solidarity among the peace-loving peoples of the Asia-Pacific.
By Lee Jong-soo
Lee Jong-soo is senior managing director at the Brock Group in New York and author of “The Partition of Korea After World War II: A Global History” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). ― Ed.