Overcoming regional strife in Northeast Asia

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Overcoming regional strife in Northeast Asia


From top: People demonstrating on March 1 in Seoul. Shinzo Abe celebrating Japan’s Self-Defense Forces Day in Asaka on Oct. 27, 2013. Chinese people protesting against Japan in Mexico City earlier this month. [JoongAng Ilbo]

While many countries around the world are building ties with one another, driven closer by the forces of globalization, three countries in Northeast Asia - Korea, China and Japan - seem to have little interest in doing so, at least not with each other.

Japan faces an ever-growing right-wing movement. China has clearly shown it is looking out for its own self-interests, based on its growing power. And South Korea has grown more assertive as its clout has also grown.

Economic competition, disputed islands and waters in the region and explosive differences in how each country relates to the past, especially Japan’s colonization of Korea and the Pacific War, have led to ever-rising tensions.

To find ways to fight the growth of nationalism in Northeast Asia, the JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, interviewed four senior academics from the three countries: Kan Kimura, a political science professor at Kobe University in Japan; Jin Jingyi, a professor of eastern studies at Peking University; Li Gongzhong, a history professor at Nanjing University in China; and Cho Se-young, a professor at Dongseo University and former director general of the East Asia Bureau at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

They all agree on the importance of reducing nationalism so that the three countries could grow closer, but they all seemed to believe that such a day was unlikely to come soon.

Q. Is there any chance of Korea, China and Japan going to war?

A. Cho: On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being peace and 10 being war, right now we are at 7, which is a very dangerous level. There is a chance of the Chinese and Japanese militaries clashing after some accidental incidents.

Kimura: The risk has gone up. Before, Korea, China and Japan managed to avoid clashes thanks to having political elites who would compromise. But, lately, it is hard for governments to control the public’s voice. It is wrong that right-wing politicians in Japan instigate some of the situations arising there.

Li: Unlike during the first Sino-Japanese War [1894-1895], a war today would be much more limited because there are so many restrictions from global society limiting each country. So the risk level only ranges around 2 or 3.

What is the reason behind the spread of nationalism in Northeast Asia, while other countries in the world are tending to move toward globalization?

Cho: The sense of nationalism that was lurking in Korea, China and Japan during the Cold War era is now rising to the surface, while the rest of the world is trying to leave that Cold War phase.

Li: Nationalism has re-emerged because countries are in the process of reconfiguring their status in Northeast Asia due to the growth of China recently.

Kimura: Due to globalization, all three countries now have more options on what countries to work with when they build their global networks. At the same time, the importance of maintaining ties among the three countries has lowered, and that has led to bigger conflicts. An exception applies to the European Union as the cooperative union was formed before the advent of globalization.

Is nationalism a barrier that prevents countries from cooperating with one another?

Cho: Yes. Even economic trade among the three countries has become a major area of fighting to see which has greater political power. They can’t trust one another. The idea of nationalism needs to be redefined so that it means something more open and inclusive.

Jin: The three countries have established some cooperative measures, but they have not really made any progress because Japan has been wrong about acknowledging its history. Korea and China need to work together so that Japan will be more repentant over its past actions.

Kimura: It is considered impossible for the three countries to work closely together just because they are neighbors. Japan and China still have many chances to work with other countries in Asia, including India, even when they don’t cooperate with the countries that their citizens are antagonistic toward.


Top to bottom: Cho Se-young, Kan Kimura, Li Gongzhong, Jin Jingyi

Some say that politicians are heavily responsible for the conflicts in Northeast Asia, as they are too sensitive to popular opinion. Do you agree?

Cho: Yes, leaders are greatly responsible. Visiting Dokdo and taking a photo there or visiting the controversial Kuril Islands are examples of why they are responsible. As long as politicians instigate conflicts inspired by narrow-minded nationalism, there is little chance of the three countries cooperating.

Jin: The Japanese government is the most responsible. Japanese leaders and the public have used each other, making a vicious cycle. Public opinion has become the supporting army of the government so that Japan can expedite its move rightward. Political leaders in Korea and China have led the public opinion in a quite fair manner.

Kimura: Diplomats, government officials and other officials who are actually out there, building international relations, want the countries in Northeast Asia to work well together. However, the political leaders have different ideas. In any country, the goal of political leaders is to keep their political status, so it is hard for them to do things that do not please the public. It can be widely seen in Korea, China and Japan that the power of working-level leaders has been weakening and that of political leaders is rising. We need to clearly understand that such a phenomenon makes it hard for Korea and Japan to compromise on many issues.

What is the most important problem that nationalism in Northeast Asia has created?

Cho: Issues regarding history and territorial disputes are on the top of the list, but we need to look at the issues over the long-term. Professor Benedict Anderson, a specialist in nationalism, said when he was visiting Korea in 2005 that the issues regarding Dokdo or historical past are smaller than those regarding Korea’s reunification. That is something we need to keep in mind.

Jin: Japan’s militarism and right-wing movement are the most critical issues, followed by China being too assertive and taking advantage of its size. China should never forget that Mao Zedong said in the 1950s that China should not become such a country.

Li: The most imminent problem is the nuclear issue with North Korea. But the more important issue is that how people think about China should change. It is an impartial fact that China is developing and such a trend has become a leading factor in the changes affecting the power structure in Northeast Asia. There are many people being critical of China, like it is only the threat. However, people need to see the big picture and China’s rising status in the world so that they can be more constructive.

Kimura: The major problem is globalization and the degraded status of Japan due to such globalization. I’m also worried about populist politics and the rise of frivolous nationalism.

What is going to happen in the future?

Cho: It is hard to think that the current conflicts might be dissolved within a decade. It would be tough to think that the current situation won’t get worse.

Li: After 30 years, citizens from Korea, China, Japan will travel freely and do business together. Nationalism will become an icon of homesickness, like how people feel now toward their old hometowns.

Kimura: In the coming 10 years, Korea and China will become closer and Japan will strengthen its ties with countries in the Pacific. Nationalism in the three countries will continue in its own way. There is zero possibility that Japan will start a war because of its friendly ties with the United States. After about 30 years, the situation in the three countries is going to be completely different as they will all experience some decrease in population and growth. From what Japan has experienced, I think China will start focusing on nationalism more when it faces stalled economic growth. What comes after that cannot be predicted.

What are some of the things that need to be done by the three countries?

Cho: If Korea manages to move ahead and tone down its nationalism, China and Japan will become more responsive. China and Japan, on the other hand, need to cooperate with Korea rather than obstruct when it comes to the nuclear issue of North Korea or the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

Jin: Japan needs to have the right view of history, and Korea and China need to work with the people in Japan who support justice so that they can prevent militarism. Korea and China need to ignore their small differences and instead try to find similarities in the bigger picture. It is time for the two countries to re-establish their cooperative relationship. This means they need to overcome any narrow-minded focus on democracy.

Kimura: I wish Korea’s politicians would consider how their actions impact public opinion in Japan. They need to think based on the idea that bettering foreign relations is a game that no one wins or loses. China needs to focus on building a structure in which interests do not collide in Northeast Asia. China’s way of doing foreign relations right now, which focuses on national power up front, only raises the guard of the United States and makes Japan work more with India and eventually can become a burden to it.

BY KANG CHAN-HO [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

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