Political transitions in East Asia promise to mark a defining moment in the region’s jittery geopolitics. After the ascension in China of Xi Jinping, regarded by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as its own man, Japan seems set to swing to the right in its impending election — an outcome likely to fuel nationalist passion on both sides of the Sino-Japanese rivalry.
Japan’s expected rightward turn comes more than three years after voters put the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in power. By contrast, South Korea’s election — scheduled for December 19, just three days after the Japanese go to the polls — could take that country to the left, after the nearly five-year rule of rightist President Lee Myung-bak, who proved to be a polarizing leader.
These political transitions could compound East Asia’s challenges, which include the need to institute a regional balance of power and dispense with historical baggage that weighs down interstate relationships, particularly among China, Japan, and South Korea. Booming trade in the region has failed to mute or moderate territorial and other disputes; on the contrary, it has only sharpened regional geopolitics and unleashed high-stakes brinkmanship. Economic interdependence cannot deliver regional stability unless rival states undertake genuine efforts to mend their political relations.
The scandals surrounding the top aides to Lee — nicknamed “the Bulldozer” from his career as a construction industry executive — have complicated matters for the ruling Saenuri Party’s candidate, Park Geun-hye, and buoyed the hopes of her leftist rival, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party. Park is the daughter of former president, General Park Chung-hee, who seized power in a military coup in 1961.
Reining in South Korea’s powerful chaebol (family-run conglomerates) has become a key issue in the presidential election, with even Park favoring tighter control over them, although it was her father’s regime that helped build them with generous government support. Her populist stance on the chaebol suggests that, if elected, she might similarly pander to nationalist sentiment by taking a tough stance against Japan, especially to play down her father’s service in Japan’s military while Korea was under Japanese colonial rule.
But, even if Moon becomes president, the new strains in South Korea’s relationship with Japan, owing to the revival of historical issues, may not be easy to mend. Earlier this year, Lee, at the last minute, canceled the scheduled signing of the “General Security of Military Information Agreement” with Japan, which would have established military intelligence-sharing between the two countries, both US allies, for the first time. Lee also scrapped a bilateral plan to finalize a military-related Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement. Weeks later, he provocatively visited the contested islets known as the Dokdo Islands in South Korea (which controls them) and the Takeshima Islands in Japan.
China, meanwhile, has cast a long shadow over the Japanese parliamentary elections. In recent months, China has launched a new war of attrition by sending patrol ships frequently to the waters around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands, which China calls Diaoyu. This physical assertiveness followed often-violent anti-Japanese protests in China in September, while a continuing informal boycott of Japanese goods has led to a sharp fall in Japan’s exports to China, raising the risk of another Japanese recession.
The DPJ’s 2009 election victory had been expected to lead to a noticeable warming of Japan’s ties with China. After all, the DPJ came to power on a promise to balance Japan’s dependence on the US with closer ties with the People’s Republic. But its bridge-building agenda foundered on growing Chinese assertiveness, leading successive DPJ governments to bolster Japan’s security ties with the US.
China’s behavior has fueled a nationalist backlash in Japan, helping to turn hawkish, marginal politicians like Shintaro Ishihara into important mainstream figures. Japan may be in economic decline, but it is rising politically. Indeed, Albert del Rosario, the foreign minister of the Philippines, which was under Japanese occupation during WWII, now strongly supports a re-armed Japan as a counterweight to China.
But the resurgence of nationalism in Japan is only fanning Chinese nationalism, creating a vicious circle from which the two countries are finding it difficult to escape. Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party, who is likely to become Japan’s next prime minister, has vowed to take a tougher line on Senkaku and other disputes with China. More important, the LDP has called for revising Article 9 of Japan’s US-imposed post-1945 constitution, which renounces war.
The risks posed by increasing nationalism and militarism to regional peace have already been highlighted by the rise of a new Chinese dynasty of “princelings,” or sons of revolutionary heroes who have widespread contacts in the military. The real winner from the recent appointment of the conservative-dominated, seven-member Politburo Standing Committee is the PLA, whose rising clout has underpinned China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy.
In fact, what distinguishes Xi from China’s other civilian leaders is his strong relationship with the PLA. As Xi rose through the Communist Party ranks, he forged close military ties as a reservist, assuming leadership of a provincial garrison and serving as a key aide to a defense minister. His wife, Peng Liyuan, is also linked to the military, having served as a civilian member of the army’s musical troupe, and carries an honorary rank of general.
Against this background, the central challenge for East Asia’s major economies — particularly Japan and South Korea — is to resolve the historical issues that are preventing them from charting a more stable and prosperous future. As a Russian proverb warns, “Forget the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes.”
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut and Water: Asia’s New Battleground. Full profile