East Asia’s Defining Moment


International Herald Tribune: December 22, 2012

Portrait of Brahma Chellaney

The overlapping power transitions in East Asia’s three main economies promise to mark a defining moment in the region’s tense geopolitics. After the ascension in China of Xi Jinping, regarded by the People’s Liberation Army as its own man, Japan’s swing to the right in its parliamentary election seems set to fuel nationalist passion on both sides of the Sino-Japanese rivalry at a time when their brewing territorial spat in the East China Sea has created new risks to regional peace and stability.

South Korea’s presidential election swept another conservative to power, but one who supports conditional rapprochement with North Korea — a line at variance with the policies of departing President Lee Myung-bak and President Obama to keep Pyongyang punitively isolated. Park Geun-hye, the first woman to be elected president in a country that ranks poorly in gender equality, says she intends to tread the middle path between unconditional engagement and uncompromising chastisement.

Park Geun-hye, the 60-year-old daughter of the military general who served as South Korea’s dictator for 18 years until 1979, will assume the presidency in February — a month before Xi, the new leader of the ruling Communist Party, becomes China’s president — while Shinzo Abe, a vocal nationalist, will return as Japan’s prime minister a day after Christmas.

Abe, as prime minister in 2006 and 2007, proposed a concert of democracies in the Asia-Pacific — an idea that spawned the Quadrilateral Initiative of Australia, India, Japan and the United States. Although China’s strong response prevented the “quad” from developing into a formal institution, the four countries have been building strategic collaboration on a bilateral and — in the case of India, Japan and America — even trilateral basis.

East Asia’s political transitions threaten to exacerbate regional challenges, which include the need to institute a stable balance of power and dispense with historical baggage that weighs on interstate relationships. Booming trade has failed to moderate territorial and historical disputes, highlighting that economic interdependence by itself cannot deliver regional stability unless rival states undertake genuine efforts to mend their political relations.

The timing of the political transitions is particularly problematic for the Obama administration, which has been urging China and Japan to peacefully resolve their disputes, while keeping the Stalinist regime in North Korea under stringent sanctions and seeking to promote strategic cooperation between its two allies, South Korea and Japan.

South Korea’s decade-long “sunshine policy” of engagement with North Korea was reversed by the neoconservative Lee after he took office in 2008, triggering a series of tit-for-tat actions that brought the South-North relationship to a low by 2010.

Despite Pyongyang’s successful rocket launch last week in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, Lee’s successor and colleague in the Saenuri Party, Park, has promised to allow humanitarian aid to the North and to try to meet its young leader Kim Jong-un, who is less than half her age. Kim came to power a year ago following the death of his father. Park’s more moderate approach could undercut Obama’s sanctions-centered policy just when Pyongyang has signaled open defiance of U.S. and U.N. pressure.

Washington’s diplomatic efforts notwithstanding, the new strains in South Korea’s relationship with Japan, owing to the revival of historical issues, may also not be easy to mend. Earlier this year, Lee, at the last minute, canceled the scheduled signing of a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, besides scrapping a bilateral plan to finalize a military-related Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement. Weeks later, Lee provocatively visited the contested islets known as the Dokdo Islands in South Korea (which controls them) and the Takeshima Islands in Japan.

Park may seek to similarly pander to nationalist sentiment at home by taking a tough stance against Japan, especially to play down her father’s collaboration with the Japanese military while Korea was under Japanese colonial rule.

China, meanwhile, has launched a new campaign of attrition against Japan over the Senkaku Islands. By sending patrol ships frequently to the waters around the islands — and by violating the airspace over them — Beijing has sought to challenge Japan’s decades-old control, despite the risk that an incident could spiral out of control.

This assertiveness followed often-violent anti-Japanese protests in China in September. An informal Chinese boycott of Japanese goods has led to a sharp fall in Japan’s exports to China, raising the risk of another Japanese recession. China remains Japan’s largest overseas market. A nationalist backlash in Japan is in turn fanning nationalism in China, where the Communist Party has made ultranationalism the legitimating credo of its monopoly on power. Consequently, China and Japan find themselves in a vicious circle that is difficult to escape.

The risks to peace in East Asia posed by increasing nationalism and militarism are highlighted by the rise of a new Chinese dynasty of “princelings” — the sons of revolutionary heroes who have widespread contacts in the military. In fact, what distinguishes Xi, a former military reservist, from China’s other civilian leaders is his strong relationship with the military, whose rising clout has underpinned China’s increasingly muscular foreign policy.

Against this background, the central challenge for East Asia’s three largest economies 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, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut.” 

(c) International Herald Tribune/New York Times, 2012.