Looking for true regional peaceWhen it comes to international affairs, the outlook for 2014 is gloomy. Many talk about a crisis for the year of “Gabo” - meaning the Year of the Blue Horse on the traditional sexagenary cycle of astrology - because they remember the Gabo Reform, Donghak Peasant Revolution and the first Sino-Japanese War, all of which occurred in Korea in a Gabo year 120 years ago.
Although I do not agree with the argument that history repeats itself, the unclear hegemony of the United States, the rise of a stronger China and Japan’s increasingly aggressive moves to become a “normal” state naturally make me think about the possibility of a looming crisis on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.
Some even overtly show nostalgia for the cold war era. Although there was a risk of nuclear war back then, some believe strategic stability and predictability at least reigned during that period. In the era of peace after the cold war, peace ironically was weak and unstable. All of the countries in the region promote peace, but will eventually end up in confrontations, in the so-called “Northeast Asian paradox.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared that he will continue to promote the Deng Xiaoping policy of “peaceful development” in order to achieve a “Xiaokang” society composed of a strong middle class by maintaining harmony internally and peace internationally. U.S. President Barack Obama also prompted his “pivot to Asia” policy to promote peace and prosperity in the region.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came up with “assertive pacifism,” the idea that Japan cannot secure its peace and stability without actively participating to maintain peace and stability in the world.
The Park Geun-hye government also promoted the Korean Peninsula Process and Northeast Asia Peace Initiative to seek peace and prosperity in the region. Even North Korea said the North-U.S. Peace Agreement and establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula are its top priorities.
Clearly, peace is the common denominator that brings regional leaders together. But the outcome has been worsened security. Where does this paradox come from?
The biggest reason is the revival of geopolitical thinking triggered by China’s rise. Robert Kaplan’s “The Revenge of Geography” is a classic example that illustrates that thinking. He argued that a rising China would inevitably clash with the United States or Japan in order to secure its market, resources and the security of maritime routes. It feels like seeing the ghost of Nazi Germany’s strategic view of Lebensraum, or “living space,” which disappeared with the end of World War II. Such zero-sum thinking fuels the conflicts and distrust between countries.
Nationalism is also playing a role here. Unresolved historical and territorial issues are fueling nationalism. There is an old Russian saying that goes, “Those oblivious to history become one-eyed, but those obsessed with history will lose both eyes.” Japan’s leaders have denied their country’s past aggression and glorified its wars, triggering the rise of nationalism in the region.
The problem is that Japan’s obsession is blinding both Korea and China as well, and amplifying their rage toward Japan. When such a mechanism repeats, it just strengthens Japan’s ultra-nationalists, and the hostility among Korea, China and Japan - created through nationalism - poses a serious threat to the peace in Northeast Asia.
Come to think of it, geopolitical thinking and nationalistic sentiments are all man-made. They are all occurring among countries heavily dependent upon trade, so what good is threatening the security of sea routes?
Even if the clash of nationalism is severe, they cannot start a military conflict or a war. The issues can be resolved diplomatically when they decide to follow common sense and reason.
What stops reasonable thinking is the domestic politics of each country. The foreign policies of all three countries are hostages of domestic politics. Abe’s ultra-nationalistic moves are coming not only from his personal beliefs, but also from a populist attempt to expand his support.
Politicians who put their individual political interests first over the larger interest of the country and region - along with the sensationalist media - are the culprits. China and Korea are also not free from those temptations.
The concerns of anarchic hostility and crisis in Northeast Asia are not the true reality. They are a virtual reality created by politics and media. In Northeast Asia, international law and order is working, and economic and sociocultural inter-dependence is deepening, while many members are intertwined and building communities. That is the true reality of Northeast Asia because the space of trust and cooperation is larger than the space of confrontation and conflict.
The civic societies in each country must join their forces and stop those who are only after political gain. They must take down the obstacles of distrust and antagonism to create true peace in the Northeast Asia region.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.
by Moon Chung-in