Lessons from a century pastMany people are trying to put China’s rise in a historical context, including the Chinese themselves. During a visit to the United States in September last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke about a new model for major-country relations, especially between China and the United States. “According to some studies of history, there have been about 15 cases of a rise of emerging powers,” he said in a speech. “In 11 cases, confrontation and war broke out between the emerging and the established powers.”
He then followed up with some principles: No conflict or confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. The United States and China must build a win-win relationship based on mutual respect and avoid conflict or confrontation, he said. The intention was to learn from the failures of the past to create a new model. Chinese President Xi Jinping also said last month that the two countries must not fall into the “Thucydides trap.” He was referring to the observation by historian Thucydides on the eventual fall of both Athens and Sparta after the 30-year Peloponnesian War.
Conflict and confrontations in East Asia cannot be discussed without the changed dynamics that China’s rapid rise has brought about. Conflict is possible between those who are trying to protect the existing order and China, which is trying to create a new order altogether. The rise of China is unprecedented in history for its speed and scope. It can be compared to the rise of Japan and Germany, which brought about wars in the East and West in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The United States is “pivoting” to Asia and supporting Japan’s aggressive security policy, perhaps for the sake of a balance of power.
The age of Pax Americana ended long ago. The notion of American exceptionalism in terms of freedom and human rights is fading. Signs of a new isolationism are even being seen. The United States has no choice but to check China by cooperating with Japan. Japan’s attempts to rearm and amend its pacifist Constitution align with the national interests of the United States. In East Asia, it seems inevitable that we will see a long period of China-Japan confrontation.
Power is not everything between China and Japan. They have historical issues. For China, the Diaoyu Islands, called the Senkakus by Japan, are a symbol of its humiliating modern history. Japan annexed the islands in 1895 during the Sino-Japanese War, which broke out a year earlier. That war, along with the Opium Wars, was a turning point in China’s history. It shattered the pride of a nation that controlled one-third of the world’s gross domestic product in the early 19th century. The Sino-Japanese War was a trauma to China. During diplomatic normalization negotiations in 1972, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka that the two countries had a history of 1,000 years of friendship and 50 years of enmity. Counting backward from Japan’s defeat in 1945, the half-century started with the Sino-Japanese War.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin also talked about the war during a visit to Japan in 1998. That demonstrates that the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkakus is not just a territorial issue. It is about the humiliation of China that grew out of Japan’s Meiji Restoration and later militarism and imperialism. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, gave a speech in 1924 to promote a path to peace in which he issued a challenge. “The question remains whether Japan will be a watchdog for the Western way of might or a defender of the Eastern way of right,” he said. That could have served as a lesson to the Japanese. It is an irony of history that Japan is now comparing China to itself in the 1930s and asking China to think about Sun’s speech.
Chinese President Xi is talking about the Chinese dream while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is talking about Japan’s spirit. Nationalism based on the splendors of their pasts is growing in both countries. Korea is the key to the power game of East Asia. Either Korea stands by the United States and Japan or China will change the balance of power. It is similar to the situation from the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), when the fate of the Qing Dynasty and Japan was decided depending on which country Korea had sided with. Korea’s strategic value remains unchanged today. Although we are forced to make a choice, that also means we can lead the situation. We are an ally of the United States. We share a history before the war with China and a postwar democracy with Japan.
Korea is the only country that can promote the diplomacy of peace and prosperity in East Asia by improving inter-Korean relations and creating a two-track framework of Korea-U.S.-Japan and Korea-China-Japan relations. This is the way to escape the shackles of power politics among the superpowers. We must not turn a blind eye to Japan’s past misdeeds, but we must also not fall into the trap of being obsessed with history. Discussions in Korea remain shallow but in policy-making, iron-hard principles overwhelm the flexibility of silk. During the late Joseon Dynasty, Huang Zunxian, a Qing Dynasty diplomat, wrote “A Policy for Joseon” and compared Joseon’s situation to the swallows merrily singing under the roof while the house’s kitchen was on fire. His warning must be contemplated anew.