A month ago Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe compared the current China-Japan relationship to that of Britain and Germany in the early 20th century, and the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said that there are similarities between the current security environment in East Asia and 19th-century Europe. Their remarks touched off a debate in the intellectual community and mass media in South Korea. Such a reaction is quite natural, considering that the Abe government openly advocates a great-power Japan and pursues provocative policies toward China and South Korea, forcing South Korea to reconsider its balanced approach to its two neighbors.
Are Abe’s and Kissinger’s analogies correct? In order to understand the sudden shift of Japan’s Northeast Asia policy from a post-war pacifist strategy to an aggressive policy, we have to review the history of the security environment of East Asia since the opening of China, Japan and Korea to the West in the late 19th century.
In the 1840s Western imperialist powers opened China by force and humiliated it by demanding territorial, political and economic concessions, and 12 years later they opened Japan. They also opened Korea. But the opening of these three Asian countries impacted them differently: China did not lose its mainland completely but went through internal and international wars and lost its international status as the Middle Kingdom, while Japan turned its humiliating experiences into an design for joining the Western imperialist camp, annexing Korea and Manchuria and attempting to take the whole of China. Korea, which had long been under Chinese suzerainty, finally succumbed to Japan rather than one of the Western imperialist powers.
After World War II China recovered its territories and became a communist state, while Japan lost the war but maintained its independence and retained its main territories. But the former could not restore its status as the center of Asia and the latter became a pacifist state under the protection of the U.S. On the other hand, Korea was divided into a democratic South and communist North, with the former aligned with a Western power and the latter with China and the former Soviet Union.
Since World War II, particularly since the end of the Cold War, two great transformations have taken place in Northeast Asia: the restructuring of the security architecture and the emergence of China and Japan as great economic powers. In the new security architecture China maintains normal relations with the two Koreas but not equal relationships, while Japan and the U.S. maintain normal relations with China but not equal relationships with one another.
A significant change has been taking place in East Asia since China replaced Japan as the second-biggest economy and the U.S. began to experience a serious economic recession and power fatigue from its over-involvement in world affairs, while Russia revived its desire to recover its old empire.
All this shows why Japan is taking a provocative stance toward China and Korea and even an assertive attitude toward the U.S. It also explains why the U.S. is emphasizing its pivot to the Asia-Pacific while demonstrating its resolve to protect all Japanese territories, including the disputed ones, and upholding a nonconciliatory policy toward North Korea. The U.S. is a status quo power, which means it intends to preserve its world leadership, but China challenges the status quo. Japan tries to adjust its international posture to this uncertain situation.
China and Japan both harbor grievances. China is still irked about the humiliation it suffered from the intrusion of the Western imperialist powers, while Japan is bothered by the failure of its grand design to establish the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere mainly due to the U.S. intervention.
The Chinese seem to believe that China deserves a sphere of influence in the region even if it cannot recover its old tributary states, just as the U.S. and other big Western powers believe that they need their spheres of influence. The Japanese, on the other hand, think that Japan is one of the great powers and therefore also deserves to play a great-power role in world affairs.
Perhaps this kind of attitude explains why Japan is extremely hesitant to apologize sincerely to the victims of its aggression in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During those years, all Western powers were imperialists and colonized and invaded non-Western countries, and Japan simply joined the ranks of this imperialist competition. Some ultranationalists take the extreme position that Germany went too far and therefore had no choice but to show deep remorse. They may assert that the Western colonial powers have not fully compensated their former colonies for their wrongdoings.
Another motive for the revival of extreme nationalism in Japan seems to be related to Japan’s concern about the possible withdrawal of the U.S. from Asia in the long run. It should be kept in mind that on the eve and in the wake of the end of the Cold War, Japan took the initiative to establish economic and security organizations in the Asia-Pacific (APEC and ARF), fearing that the U.S. would not be able to remain economically and militarily dominant in the region and might gradually withdraw. Perhaps Japan is preparing to take the place of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific to counter China and create a new regional order.
Under the circumstances, South Korea’s choice is not to form a united front with China against Japan but to pursue its own strategy, mainly because its fears and concerns are not the same as China’s. South Korea’s main concern is the possible revival of both Chinese and Japanese imperialist designs, not American domination. The Northeast Asian security structure has remained basically the same as it was in the age of the West’s penetration into the East. South Korea’s task is to build a more permanent and secure architecture.
By Park Sang-seek
Park Sang-seek is a former rector of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, and the author of “Globalized Korea and Localized Globe.” ― Ed.