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The new face of nationalism in Asia

Daniel Sneider San Jose Mercury News

Looking out at northeast Asia today, it is easy to believe that economic globalization will soon make national borders irrelevant.

Japan, China and South Korea are all dynamic economies that rank among the most powerful in the world. They are intertwined with each other in a million ways, with factories, capital and technology moving across boundaries in way Adam Smith never imagined. South Korean television dramas draw huge audiences in Japan while Japanese animated cartoons captivate Chinese schoolchildren.

Unfortunately, such globalization has not diminished the passions of nationalism. Japan and South Korea are embroiled in an angry and increasingly ugly dispute over competing claims to two rocky outposts in the sea that lies between them. Japanese and Chinese warships play cat and mouse around another set of disputed islands.

Tensions escalated this past week when Japan’s Education Ministry approved a controversial series of school history textbooks that critics say cover up Japan’s wartime crimes. Chinese and Korean officials lodged protests while violent demonstrations broke out in both countries. A trade group for Chinese chain stores called on its members to stop selling Japanese products in protest. Honda Motors cut back the travel of its executives to China out of concern.

The Japanese, however, are not in a mood to bow to such furor over the past. At a recent annual meeting of U.S. and Japanese security experts that I attended, Japanese officials and experts expressed irritation, even anger, over China’s seemingly unquenchable demand for them to apologize for World War II. They defend Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual visits to Yasukuni, the Shinto shrine to Japan’s war dead.

At the same time, the Japanese participants were eager to point to the rise of China as a growing threat, not only to themselves but to the United States. At a recent meeting between Japanese and U.S. military and foreign ministers, the Japanese for the first time embraced language to imply that defense of the Taiwan Strait was part their joint security mission with the United States.

East Asia’s nationalism is not new. But new forces are giving it added fury. China is bursting at the seams with its own sense of power. Japan is freeing itself from post-war constraints on playing a military role beyond its borders, so far only as peacekeepers. South Korea is searching for its identity – pondering its alliance with the United States, leaning toward China but fearful of domination, and yearning for reunification of the divided peninsula.

The United States is the dominant Pacific power, with its own wartime legacy and a complex web of relationships with the three northeast Asian nations. The United States is at once an ally to two of them – Japan and South Korea – and a competitor and sometime partner with the third, China.

The United States is the indispensable “balancer” in this region, but it can also be a target of the rising nationalism. Every act, however unintended, can be interpreted as a sign that the United States is taking sides. South Koreans, for example, were angered by the administration’s support for Japan to have a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

The Bush administration has a clear but simple geopolitical vision in northeast Asia. Tokyo rightfully has pride of place as our most valued strategic ally. Seoul is a shaky No. 2 – but only if its stays close to U.S. aims.

Beijing has been issued both an invitation and a warning. China is at a “strategic crossroads,” deputy defense secretary Douglas Feith said in February. If it wants to continue to rise as a power, it must choose to join the international system shaped by the United States and other Western powers.

There is nothing wrong with this vision and this message. But Washington should also avoid being forced into making an unnecessary “choice” of Japan over its neighbors. While asserting our alliance, we also need to actively offer our services in encouraging reconciliation among Japan and China and South Korea.

For their own sake, Japanese need to come to terms with the past. And Chinese and South Koreans should stop using the past to play politics at home. If that happens, all of us can focus, as we must, on the future of this vibrant and vital region.

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