New Leaders Forum

The Tide of History Breaks in August

Recent Features

New Leaders Forum

The Tide of History Breaks in August

A combustible mix of history, current events, and leadership transitions all combine to stoke regional tensions.

In recent days, each tide seems to bring a new crew of activists to the shores of the Senkaku/islands while Dokdo/Diaoyutai Takeshima has been graced by South Korea’s president and a relay race of high-profile activists swimming from the South’s mainland. Equal numbers of “patriots” from each country have been actively discouraged from fanning the flames with their own visits.

Blame the high tide of activism on four factors. First, there is the fact that these disputes are inextricably linked — to each other and to similar ones in the South China Sea. The attention given to any one controversy reminds publics in other countries of their own dispute and inspires them to assert their own claim or counter the actions of a rival. So for example, the scrutiny of South China Sea disputes prompted “patriots” elsewhere in the region to put down their own markers. They don’t feel threatened by those other claims, but they do feel obliged to make their own case. (Of course, these disputes are ever ready to be stoked, but recent flares suggest they shouldn’t be considered in isolation — even when the same claimants are not involved.)

These disputes are also connected by a particular date in history: August 15. While each claim is rooted in a different set of circumstances, they are all legacies of the end of World War II, an anniversary marked this month. The August 15 commemorations focus on loss, and the territorial dispensations at the end of the conflict remain contested. An annual spike in civil action is to be expected when national sentiment is stoked in the name of remembrance, national humiliation, and defeat.

Those emotions flow even more abundantly this year. For two weeks, the world has been focused on the Olympics, where medal counts lead the nightly news and the media is awash with tales of individual accomplishment, national glory, or insult to the country at the hands of some long-despised nemesis. Patriotism has been stoked for weeks and some spillover is inevitable — especially when each country from Northeast Asia saw each dispute played out in microcosm during the Olympics. For example, Japan squared off against South Korea in soccer (the ROK prevailed), Japan defeated China in women’s volleyball, and a Chinese swimmer bested his ROK rival in the 400 meter freestyle after the ROK participant was disqualified and then reinstated. The Olympics don’t create the deep-seated animosities that guide public (over)reaction, but we kid ourselves if we think that the emotions that are whipped up during two weeks of intense competition and chest thumping dissipate because of a Spice Girl reunion.

The final factor is the leadership transitions that are about to take place in each country. China is preparing for the handover of power to the fifth generation of leaders, likely headed by Xi Jinping. South Korea held National Assembly elections in the spring and the jockeying is intensifying for the December presidential ballot. Japan has leadership elections in each of its political parties in the coming weeks, and while a general election isn’t required to be held until next year, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko has already dodged one no-confidence vote and promised the opposition to hold an election “soon” — with no date specified — in exchange for its support for a tax increase.

As groups fight for influence during political transitions, no aspiring national leader can afford to act in ways that opponents can characterize as “soft” or insufficiently zealous in the protection of national sovereignty. While policymakers understand that nuance and compromise are essential elements of foreign and security policy, politics demand the full-throated, unyielding defense of national interests; and democracy demands that politicians pay some heed to that sentiment. There is no reward for being a statesman. The internet echo chamber amplifies nationalist complaints, providing a rallying point for like-minded provocateurs and often times dictating the agenda for the mainstream media. The “reasonable, sensible position” isn’t much of a rallying point.

Sadly, trends suggest that these cycles of provocations will persist and could intensify. Until a decade ago, there was the expectation — the cornerstone of policy — that as the memory of war fades and new generations mature, the intensity of those emotions would diminish and policymakers and publics would find the means and creativity to resolve enduring problems. In recent years, however, governments are instead institutionalizing such grievances. History curriculums use perceived injustices to create regime legitimacy, a step that ensures animosity persists and reduces the will to compromise. In these circumstances, protests will ebb and flow each year, especially around Aug. 15, but the overall level of the tide of discontent is almost certain to rise.

Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank focusing on U.S. foreign policy and Asia.