Reducing Tensions in East Asia
Image Credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Reducing Tensions in East Asia


Postwar Japanese have learned an incomplete, selective and contorted narrative about their modern history, and seem unprepared to engage in an uncensored, bare-knuckle debate over their wartime history among themselves; nor are they willing to listen to unrelenting, scathing criticisms of their nation’s past deeds by foreign governments or critics. The Japanese public have watched rudderless politicians come and go for nearly a decade, and they are hungry for more effective leadership. They are also dispirited by the lackadaisical performance of their national economy over the last two decades and are eager for a new strategy for economic revitalization.

It is for these reasons that a significant, if not an overwhelming part of the Japanese public have endorsed the second-term Abe administration with its “soft” sounding nationalist political theme and bold economic policy initiative known as Abenomics. However, they do not want aggressive foreign policy, be it Japan’s own or that of foreign powers, that could rock their boat in the rough waters of international relations. Status quo is what they prefer in Japan’s foreign policy and stability is what they desire in Japan’s foreign relations.

The rancorous arguments and counterarguments among Asia’s neighbors stir painful memories; they raise difficult moral questions that the wartime generations of Japanese have long skirted and their postwar children and grandchildren have not been taught to ponder. They shake the postwar generations out of their political stupor and force them to make tough political decisions at the very time when they want to attend to the urgent task of raising their nation up from its economic doldrums. So, they tend to attribute deteriorating regional relations not to what their prewar and wartime compatriots did or did not do but to what they see as transgressions and intransigence on the part of their neighbors. This sentiment is reflected in changing public attitudes in Japan towards countries like China and Korea.

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Taking into consideration the passions and the emotions with which Chinese, Korean and Russian people view their relations with Japan, and the impact they have on their leaders’ policy options, what should the Japanese do?

They must face squarely the moral issues their prewar and wartime history raises, take every step necessary to ameliorate the rising regional tension that has its roots in that history, and make every effort possible to resolve peacefully the contemporary disputes over sovereignty claims to the physically small but symbolically significant islets in the regional seas. Moreover, the Japanese must participate in regional dialogue to forge a common vision for the future of East Asia and contain the potentially destructive consequences of regional rivalries. These are indeed formidable tasks, and they will test the wisdom and courage of several generations of leaders, not only in Japan but throughout the region.

Japan and its Asian neighbors need enlightened leaders of moral character and with pragmatic wisdom, and political systems that encourage a free and open contestations of views and opinions among all sectors of their population. They need opinion leaders and mass media that can facilitate a healthy debate on issues of national identity and national interests that do not rely on an artificially created image of an enemy. They need policymakers and diplomats who are guided by pragmatism and who are credible in the eyes of their publics. They need policies that emphasize common interests and international cooperation over divisive approaches to issues and rivalries. And they need intellectual elites who can assist political leaders and foreign policymakers in communicating long-term and broad regional visions rather than short-term calculations and nationalist perspectives regarding their region’s future.

What are the principles that should guide the search for a mutually acceptable, pragmatic solution? First, the conflicting understandings of modern history are unavoidable inasmuch as each nation has its unique historical experiences and sources of inspiration and imagination with which it looks upon those experiences. Only free and open contestations of interpretations of historical events in each country can give its people a full and nuanced understanding of its history and inform a wholesome national identity. An attempt by neighbors to influence the history discourse in any nation, even if well intended, will be hazardous and counterproductive. The best that each nation can do is to share its understanding of its own history with its neighbors through dialogue, in which no country feels slighted, dishonored or threatened.

Second, each country should encourage domestic debate on the contemporary moral implications of their past, uncovering and sharing information on all significant events, not just convenient ones, in their history among themselves and with their neighbors. This is obviously easier said than done, because some revelations are likely to entail legal, political and even personal consequences for contemporary generations. However, any attempt to conceal or downplay the significance of past events and moral responsibilities will delay necessary reconciliations within and between nations, and can do more harm to themselves and to their future generations.

Third, territorial disputes are extremely difficult to resolve, bilaterally, multilaterally, or even through international mediation, because they touch sovereignty claims by states and the outcome may compromise the political legitimacy of contemporary leaders, not to mention a possible loss to the material interests of the disputants. Arguably more important are the symbolic and sentimental values that these kinds of disputes represent. When irredentist grievances have been handed down from generation to generation in a country, they become part of the identity of contemporary generations. The best that can be done under these circumstances is for political leaders to approach the territorial disputes pragmatically and try to prevent the dispute damaging other aspects of relations between their countries, such as diplomatic talks on issues of common concern and economic and social-cultural contacts between their peoples. “Shelving” territorial claims in favor of joint development of resources around disputed islands may be one alternative. The establishment of an ecological park or a joint scientific research base on and around the islands may be another option. A unilateral declaration of the non-use of force for territorial resolution and commitment to the demilitarization of disputed territories may also be helpful in reducing animosities between the countries.

Fourth, with respect to the issue of Japanese leaders’ visits to Yasukuni Shrine, they should make such visits not while they are in office but when they are no longer serving in a public capacity, so that the visits indeed will actually be “private.” As long as they are holding public office, claiming that their visits to the shrine are private affairs is just not credible. The Japanese government should hold memorial services at a public, non-religious facility to pay respects to the war dead and other Japanese who have died while serving their nation. Such services may also include prayers for non-Japanese who have suffered under Japanese imperialism and militarism, so that the services will provide an opportunity for Japanese leaders to also offer public apologies, express their remorse, and demonstrate their atonement for the nation’s past inhumane deeds and appeal to the universal yearning for peace. When Japanese leaders offer sincere and genuine apologies in such a venue and in such a manner, foreign leaders should accept the apologies as such.

Fifth, offering apologies and atoning for the past are probably not enough to gain the trust of neighboring countries. Japan should engage actively in confidence-building efforts. Japan, China, Korea and Russia have much to learn from the successful experience of Southeast Asian countries in this regard. In 2015, the Southeast Asian countries will be celebrating the establishment of an ASEAN Security Community. Their efforts to build mutual confidence since the establishment in 1967 of ASEAN as a regional forum for dialogue have paid handsome peace dividends. They have also enabled ASEAN to serve as the core institution upon layers of multilateral institutions designed to promote regional cooperation have been built, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Plus Three dialogue forum, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), and the East Asia Summit, the last of which now includes not only the 10 ASEAN member countries and their original dialogue partners of China, Japan and South Korea, but also the United States, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and India. Although ASEAN-centered multilateralism has its limitations and, for example, has not been able to help solve the highly volatile territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the dialogue it has sustained has surely been instrumental in building confidence, preventing conflict, and expanding economic ties among Southeast Asian countries and beyond. They have certainly contributed to the transformation of Southeast Asia from the conflict-riven region that it was at ASEAN’s inception into one heading towards the creation of an ASEAN Community.

Regional tensions and security threats, including the nuclear and missile development in North Korea, the territorial disputes in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Sea of Japan/East Sea are unlikely to disappear any time soon. To avoid potentially destructive consequences, Northeast Asian countries and their Southeast Asian counterparts must build a more effective mechanism for multilateral security cooperation that goes beyond the ASEAN-centered framework. Sadly, the prospects of such a framework emerging in the foreseeable future are rather remote. In the meantime, the U.S.-centric hub-and-spokes system will play an important role in keeping peace and stability in the region. Of course this will frustrate the efforts of some of the regional political leaders to reduce the presence and influence of the United States, but until Japan, China, Korea, Russia, and the United States can find a mutually acceptable framework to address their grievances and conflicting interests, the ASEAN- and U.S.-centered systems need to complement each other in preventing regional tension from reaching the threshold of hostilities. At the same time, the regional powers need to make further progress on economic cooperation, including the establishment of bilateral and multilateral trade and investment regimes to accelerate the process of economic integration. There is no question that such efforts will require mutual accommodation between Japan and its regional neighbors.

Is it fair that fishermen whose parents and grandparents have been fishing in the waters around the contested islets cannot continue an activity so essential to their livelihoods because politicians and diplomats elected or appointed to represent their interests cannot find a way to solve the disputes? Is it fair for scientists and environmental experts who have the knowledge and instruments to produce results beneficial to all the countries in the region and beyond are not able to demonstrate their training because their political leaders are unable to reconcile their conflicting claims? Is it fair for future generations to be fed with one-sided views of history and to look unquestioningly upon their neighbors as hostile to their dreams and aspirations and as deserving less respect and less admiration because their parents and grandparents have failed to tamper their nationalist passions and find pragmatic solutions to their disputes? Yes, identities are important and national identities are an important element, but don’t future generations deserve to develop their own identities based on a full and complete account of their nations’ history, its glorious chapters, its humiliating pages, and its shameful paragraphs, as well as opportunities to meet and learn from each other about their views of the past and aspirations for the future?

Tsuneo Akaha Ph.D. is Professor of International Policy Studies and Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, California. 

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