Squabbles betray East Asia’s lack of cooperation

Michael Auslin – The International Herald Tribune

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
NEW HAVEN, Connecticut Spring usually brings out lovers strolling through parks and students lounging on college quadrangles. In China and South Korea, however, spring has brought out demonstrators stoning Japanese restaurants and diplomatic missions and chanting “kill the Japanese.” The protests have even managed to overshadow the continuing North Korean nuclear crisis.
What’s going on? Is this simply a temporary blip or a preview of even greater conflict ahead? And why is Japan the target of both the Chinese and South Koreans?
The spring protests are releasing long-suppressed nationalist passions in East Asia. The region seems frozen in time, with 19th-century-style border disputes threatening peace and stability. Beyond the major problems of Korean reunification or the future of Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have all but thrown away the years they spent rebuilding relations because of a clump of useless rocks in the sea while Japan and China clash over the tiny Senkaku Islands close to Taiwan.
Such problems are almost insoluble, since each is linked to larger political and economic concerns. Japan cannot relinquish its claim to what it calls the Takeshima Islands, as demanded by South Korea, for fear that the Russians will use it as a pretext to end discussions over returning the Kurile Islands, as demanded by Japan. China, similarly, can allow no surrender of what it considers its territory, since that would give the Taiwanese, Tibetans and others a precedent for declaring independence. Moreover, the seas around these island outcroppings are rich in natural gas and fish stocks, and thus valuable in the larger competition for natural resources in Asia.
Beyond those issues, however, Chinese mobs claim that it is Japan’s efforts to get a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council that must be stopped, though why factory workers from Shanghai should care about that is a question few have stopped to ask. More understandable is Chinese and Korean outrage over Japanese school textbooks that both countries say whitewash Japanese atrocities during World War II. Yet if such textbooks, used by an insignificant fraction of Japanese schools, are enough to cause Chinese to assault Japanese exchange students, then the countries of East Asia indeed seem trapped by history.
The fundamental problem, however, is not the memories of World War II, bitter as they still are, but growing competition among the great powers of East Asia and the absence of a durable, indigenous security mechanism there. Because of this, there is neither trust nor a normal working relationship among these countries. No region-wide organization exists, as in Europe, to arbitrate disputes, build confidence or keep the peace. Conflicts are solved by ad hoc means. Only in the case of North Korea, whose nuclear weapons program potentially threatens every player in the region, has there been an effort to involve several nations in negotiations, though that, too, may have run its course.
That must change if East Asia’s leaders want to prevent the present from fettering the future of one-fifth of humanity. They must take the short-term risks of setting aside their passions and build a mechanism to give birth to a new era of cooperation. The alternative may be a flame that erupts into an uncontrollable conflagration.
(Michael Auslin, an assistant history professor at Yale University, is the author of ”Negotiating With Imperialism: The Unequal Treaties and the Culture of Japanese Diplomacy.”)


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