A failure to come to terms with history weighs on all the important bilateral relationships in Asia. As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, some nations in the region are resurrecting the ghosts of history.
China, for example, is planning a grand military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3 to commemorate what it calls Victory over Japan Day. In announcing the parade, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, said it will display China’s military prowess and “make Japan tremble.” An increasingly muscular China, however, is rattling not only Japan but also its other neighbors.
How diplomatic relationships are held hostage to history is best exemplified by the strained ties between America’s closest regional allies — South Korea and Japan. Following Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s re-election, these two countries were presented with a stark choice: find ways to stem the recrudescence of bitter disputes over history or stay frozen in a political relationship that plays into China’s hands.
Playing the history card, China has made ultranationalism the legitimating credo of Communist rule. In recent years, China has sought to draw attention to the atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II by expanding and renovating war museums memorializing the 1931-1945 invasion, as well as through other government projects and subsidies. As though to stir its people into a frenzy of patriotism, China has also declared two new national days to remember Japanese aggression.
But what if the victims of China’s aggression followed its example and commemorated Chinese attacks on them? China, while seeking to obscure its own aggressions and occupations since the communist “revolution,” including the 1951 annexation of the sprawling Tibetan plateau and invasions of India and Vietnam in 1962 and 1979, respectively, has long called on Japan to take history as a mirror and demonstrate greater remorse for its past aggressions.
When nationalisms collide
History is rarely an objective chronicle, in keeping with the dictum that it is written by the winners. Yet history greatly shapes national narratives. In Asia, the “history problem” has spurred a resurgence of competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms. Squabbles over history and remembrance remain the principal obstacle to political reconciliation in Asia, reinforcing negative stereotypes of rival nations and helping to rationalize claims to territories long held by other nations. A country’s commemoration is usually linked with its national identity.
Honoring one country’s heroes and history can be done without seeking to alienate, provoke or rub salt in the wounds of another nation. In an economically integrated but politically divided Asia, however, relations between nations remain trapped in a mutually reinforcing loop: Poor political relations help magnify and accentuate the history problem, thus chaining diplomatic ties to history.
Breaking out of this vicious cycle demands forward-looking leadership and the will to pursue political reconciliation. At present, though, the trend is in the opposite direction. For example, attempts in East Asia to rewrite or sugarcoat history, including by revising textbooks or erecting memorials to newfound heroes, are inciting greater regional rancor and recrimination. A potent mix of domestic politics, growing geopolitical competition and military tensions has turned history into a driver of corrosive nationalism.
Disputes between South Korea and Japan and between China and Japan over territories, war memorials, textbooks and natural resources are the result of an entangled history. The Sino-Indian relationship is also a prisoner of the past. This is especially evident in the context of China’s elimination of the historical buffer — Tibet — and its subsequent war with India. Even the Chinese-South Korean relationship carries the baggage of history, burdened by China’s more recent revisionist claim to the kingdom of Koguryo, one of the three kingdoms in ancient Korea.
The recent commitment of U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to work with like-minded states to establish a power equilibrium and a rule-based order in Asia can make little headway if history continues to hinder relations even between democracies. Take Japan and South Korea: As export-oriented powerhouses with traditionally close cultural ties, the two share many values. But resurgent history issues between them have dimmed hopes of a concert of democracies to rein in China’s assertiveness.
The century-old case of Korean activist Ahn Jung-geun illustrates history’s divisive hold. Considered a terrorist in Japan, where he was hanged, but a hero in South Korea, Ahn assassinated four-time Japanese Prime Minister and the first Resident-General of Korea Hirobumi Ito in 1909 at the Harbin railway station in China.
The case resurfaced after China opened a memorial hall in Harbin in January 2014 commemorating Ahn, prompting Japan to denounce China for glorifying a terrorist. The hall was built at the suggestion of South Korean President Park Geun-hye during a meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping in the summer of 2013.
South Korea, a hyper-nationalistic state, has sought to eliminate all signs of Japanese colonial rule. But not all Asian states seek to obliterate their colonial past. India continues to transact much of its key government business from British-era edifices, and some of its major criminal and civil laws date from the colonial period. Taiwan — a former Japanese colony — also has a tolerant view of its period of subjugation.
Many nations, however, blend historical fact with myth. For example, China, as the fairy-tale Middle Kingdom, claims to be the mother of all civilizations, weaving legend with history to foster a chauvinistic Han culture centered on regaining lost glory. The Communist Party projects great-power status as China’s historical entitlement. Indeed, by embellishing China’s past, it wants to make real the legend that drives Chinese revisionist history — China’s centrality in the world. This is reflected in President Xi’s goal to build what he calls the “Chinese dream.”
Stirring up the past
Harmful historical legacies create serious impediments to rational policy choices. Park, for example, has sought closer ties with China even though South Korea’s natural regional partner is Japan. Japan — Asia’s oldest liberal democracy, which has not fired a single shot against an outside party since World War II — has been a major donor of economic and humanitarian aid.
Since coming to power more than two years ago, Park — the daughter of the military general who served as South Korea’s dictator for 18 years until 1979 — has not held a single one-on-one meeting with Abe, insisting that Japan first address lingering issues over its annexation of Korea more than 100 years ago. Japan declared Korea a protectorate in 1905, and officially annexed it in 1910.
Abe’s re-election places him on strong political ground to reach out to Park and find ways to put history behind them through negotiation. But this will be a challenging task for two reasons. First, South Korea clings to the past while Japan, which has acknowledged and apologized several times for its war crimes, wishes to forget the past. In the last century, Japan was a victor and a loser, as well as an oppressor and a victim, making its historical narrative complex and difficult, especially in relation to China and South Korea.
Second, Park has persisted in raking up the past even at the expense of the bilateral relationship. She has sought to pander to nationalist sentiment at home by being tough on Japan, clearly in part to play down her father’s collaboration with the Japanese Imperial Army. For example, Park recently again called on Japan to acknowledge the historical truth by resolving the “comfort women” issue, a reference to the sexual slavery of Korean and other women by the Japanese Imperial Army.
A grand bargain between the two East Asian neighbors would require Japan to more clearly and fully express regret and remorse over its militaristic past and South Korea to agree not to keep dredging up historical grievances.
If South Korea and Japan take the lead to put their shared past behind them, they could set an example for other relationships in Asia that are burdened by historical differences and distortions.
Asian states cannot change the past, but they can strive to shape a more cooperative future. As a Russian proverb puts it pithily, “Forget the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes.”