Is Asia’s century an illusion?

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Is Asia’s century an illusion?

Paul Bairoch (1930-1999) was a renowned postwar economic historian who fixed various misguided interpretations and fallacies about economic history. Through empirical study, he argued that Asia had been a major force behind world manufacturing and economics until the 19th century, overturning the long-standing view that Asia’s rise came about in the modern age. As of 1750, Asia accounted for 77 percent of the global output of $155 billion. In 1860, Asia excluding Japan generated an industrial output of $165 billion, nearly 60 percent of the total world production of $280 billion. The Chinese posted a per capita output of $228 in 1800, while the British and French recorded from $150 to $200. German-American economic historian Andre Gunder Frank in his book “ReOrient” also claimed that the global economic dominance remained in Asia at least until the mid-19th century even when Western powers were expanding through imperialist and colonialist incursions.

Few deny that Asia is on center stage in the 21st century. But according to studies by economic historians, it is more correct to say that the Asian age has re-emerged after a hiatus in the 19th century rather than just having emerged. China, India, Korea and other Asian dragons are the heroes behind the stunning comeback. It is why Washington is pivoting toward Asia while Japan, which guised itself as a Western nation since the 19th century, is asserting its Asian identity.

But the rise of Asia has hit a bottleneck. The three East Asian players — Korea, China and Japan, largely seen as leaders in the Asian age — are bitterly entangled in territorial disputes and historical conflicts. They may throw away the chance for a leading role by falling out with one another during such a critical period. Their current strife raises a fundamental question over whether they have the aptitude to lead the Asian era. Japan, undeniably, is at the heart of the conflict. Its persistent refusal to admit and repent its past atrocities committed against Korean and Chinese people during the imperialist period is the cause of the incongruity and tension. Its stubborn claim over Dokdo underscores how it remains attached to its colonial days. If it acted with a conscience, Japan could have easily paid atonement for its cruelty against Korean and other Asian women’s forced sexual slavery during World War II. Instead, it looked the other way and dragged its feet while the victims aged and died without receiving a long-due apology or repatriation.

President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to the Dokdo islets was a necessary wake-up call to Japan. His visit to Dokdo is no different than a trip to Busan, Daegu or any other territory in South Korea. But past presidents have not dared to set foot on the easternmost islets for fear of triggering unnecessary friction with Japan. Political calculation also played a part. Lee, a lame duck with his presidential reputation in serious jeopardy due to a chain of corruption scandals involving his elder brother and closest aides, would have been tempted to make a bold move rather than diplomatic civility to score a political point. Still, Japan’s condemnation of his visit to Dokdo is a serious infringement on our domestic affairs.

Lee, emboldened by a strong backing of public opinion, upped his rhetoric against Japan, turning bilateral issues into an emotional contest. His comments that Japan no longer has a strong influence on international society and the Japanese emperor must apologize to victims of the colonial period if he wants to come to Korea are not wrong, but nevertheless help little to resolve the Dokdo and comfort women issues.

The Japanese monarch detaches himself from political affairs. He has never said that he wished to come to Korea. In fact, he remains most favorable toward Korea. To the Japanese, he remains sacred. When the Korean president attacked him, he attacked Japan’s pride and inflamed the anti-Korean sentiment. The unpopular Noda administration jumped to capitalize on the chance to win public favor. To Prime Minister Noda and the Democratic Party, Lee’s remarks were a windfall of opportunity in the upcoming parliamentary election.

The showdown between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, or Senkaku in Japanese, has reached a dangerous level with activists and politicians from both countries competing to land on the uninhabited islands to assert their territorial claim. Anti-Japan protests have spread across China in silent licensing from the Beijing government. The Chinese leadership with a once-in-a-half-century power transition ahead cannot ignore nationalistic opinion. The sharp strife among the three countries is part of inevitable growing pains for realignment in the Asia-Pacific order. China wants to share the hegemony in the region previously singularly held by the U.S., which Japan will heavily contest. Korea also is seeking a balanced role in the tug-of-war. The entangled history of the three countries not only strains future relations, but hampers a smooth evolution of the regional order.

The U.S. finds itself in a dilemma watching the escalating tension among its closest Asian allies and rivals. While the friction would make Japan more dependent on the U.S., Japan’s challenge to China may also help the U.S.’s containment campaign against the rising influence of China. The conflict between Korea and Japan can seriously undermine its envisioning of a tripartite security alliance framework in East Asia. If leaders and politicians continue to ride on the populist nationalistic wave, they may soon find the sun setting instead of rising on the horizon. They have already lost rationality. Now the civil societies across East Asia should all recover their senses in order not to reverse the historical current.
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