Friday, October 24, 2014
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East Asia’s Sins of the Fathers

NEW YORK – One way to look at the growing military tensions over a few tiny islands in the East China Sea is to see in recent events a straightforward case of power politics. China is rising, Japan is in the economic doldrums, and the Korean peninsula remains divided. It is only natural that China would try to reassert its historical dominance over the region. And it is just as natural for Japan to feel nervous about the prospect of becoming a kind of vassal state (the Koreans are more accustomed to this role, vis-à-vis China).

Being subservient to American power, as Japan has been since 1945, was the inevitable consequence of a catastrophic war. Most Japanese can live with that. But submission to China would be intolerable.

And yet, because East Asian politics remains highly dynastic, a biographical explanation might be just as useful. Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, once the top industrial bureaucrat of wartime Japan. Imprisoned by the Americans as a war criminal in 1945, Kishi was released without trial at the beginning of the Cold War, and was elected Prime Minister as a conservative in 1957.

Kishi was a nationalist with fascist tendencies during the 1930’s and 1940’s. After the war, an equally deep aversion to Communism made him a staunch ally of the United States; Richard Nixon became a close friend. His lifelong quest was to revise the pacifist Japanese constitution, written by the Americans just after the war, and turn Japan into a proud military power once more.

Abe’s greatest wish is to complete the project that eluded his grandfather: abandon constitutional pacifism and bury the war crimes of Kishi’s generation, while remaining allied with the US against China. As a right-wing nationalist, Abe feels compelled to resist the dominance of China, if only rhetorically for the time being.

One of Kishi’s greatest Cold War allies – apart from Nixon – was the South Korean strongman President Park Chung-hee, who came to power in a military coup a year after Kishi resigned as prime minister. Park, too, had a dubious wartime career. Under the Japanese name of Takagi Masao, he served as an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army. He graduated from a military academy in Manchuria, where Kishi had once ruled over an industrial empire that was built on Chinese slave labor.

Like Kishi, Park was a nationalist. But, apart from his sentimental wartime connections to Japan, his anti-Communism was incentive enough to continue warm relations with the imperial power that had brutally colonized Korea for a half-century. Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s current president, is his daughter.

Park Geun-hye adored her father at least as much as Abe loved his grandfather, but the result of her dynastic connection is the opposite of Abe’s. To be seen as a Korean nationalist today, she must distance herself from some of her father’s political ties, especially his links with Japan. Though still admired by many South Koreans for rebuilding the country from the ruins of war, his legacy, like that of many members of the old conservative elite, is tainted by wartime collaboration. So his daughter must confront Japan over territorial disputes, to avoid inheriting the stigma of her father’s colonial past.

The case of the current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, is perhaps the most complicated of the three. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of the top leaders of the Communist revolution. A guerilla leader in the war against Japan, he helped to defeat Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in China’s civil war, became a member of the Central Committee, and then chief of propaganda, Vice Premier, and Governor of Guangdong.

An impeccable Communist career, one might think, giving his son no need to distance himself or to complete a frustrated ambition. But Xi’s nationalism, too, has a history.

Chairman Mao’s main aim was to consolidate his revolution at home. His nationalist credentials were so impressive that he could afford to be relatively easy on former enemies. Territorial disputes over unimportant islands could be laid to rest. He did not even bother to reclaim Hong Kong from the British.

It was only when Deng Xiaoping opened the door to trade with capitalist countries that anti-Japanese sentiments were deliberately stirred up. Neither Marxism nor Maoism could be used to justify China’s joining the capitalist world. This left an ideological vacuum, which old-fashioned nationalism soon filled. The more the leadership opened up the Chinese economy, the more it stoked popular anger over past wrongs, especially those committed by Japan.

The man who was most responsible for Deng’s Open Door policies was none other than Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun. Always a pragmatic Communist, the elder Xi had been the target of several purges under Mao, when relative moderates were frequently denounced as counterrevolutionaries. His son appears to follow in this pragmatic tradition, open to business with the world. That is why he, too, like Deng’s reformers, must burnish his nationalist credentials by standing up to Japan and asserting Chinese dominance in East Asia.

None of these leaders – Xi, Abe, or Park – wants a real war. Much of their posturing is for domestic consumption. One reason why they can engage in this dangerous brinkmanship is the continuing presence of the US as the regional policeman. America’s armed forces are the buffer between the two Koreas, and between China and Japan.

The US presence allows East Asia’s rival powers to act irresponsibly. The only thing that might change their behavior would be US withdrawal of its military force. In that case, the three countries would have to come to terms with one another by themselves.

But that is still regarded by the Americans, Japanese, Koreans, and probably even the Chinese as too much of a risk. As a result, the status quo is likely to persist, which means that nationalist grandstanding over conflicting territorial claims is far from over.

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  1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Will the three heads-of-state in Northeast Asia - South Korea's Park Geun-hye, China's Xi Jinping and Japan's Shinzo Abe distance themselves from the legacy of their fathers? Autumn 2012 saw a remarkable spate of leadership changes in the region. Xi Jinping was appointed new president of China. Shinzo Abe became Japan's prime minister for the second time, and South Korea elected for the first time in history a female president - Park Geun-hye.
    If "East Asian politics remains highly dynastic", the belief in destiny is definitely not out of place. This could be true for Park. In South Korea's history, she is so far the only president in her country, who has political "blue blood". Perhaps she felt obliged to forge the political reform, that her father had failed to realise. Park Chung-Hee, an autocrat, was credited with boosting South Korea's economy, turning his country from rural backwater to industrial powerhouse.
    Shinzo Abe seems to lack Park's magnanimous ambition. As offspring of a prominent political family, Japanese are more tolerant and supportive of dnyastic succession. During his first premiership, Abe showed himself to be an outspoken populist and a right-wing hawk, pushing for a more assertive foreign policy and a greater role for Japan on the world stage. Under his two-year long administration, a bill was passed setting out steps for holding a referendum on revising the country's pacifist constitution.
    Abe re-kindled the row over Japan's wartime atrocities and called for a greater sense of national pride, backing a law requiring the teaching of patriotism in schools. After standing down from the premiership in September 2007, he temporarily disappeared from political spotlight. He returned to the politics in September 2012 and soon expressed strong views on the ongoing territorial rows with China and South Korea.
    Unlike Park Geun-hye and Shinzo Abe, Xi Jinping prefers to keep a low profile and avoids the perception that he is a "princeling". Although his father, Xi Zhongxun was a revolutionary hero who helped establish the country and contributed to Chinese history, it's unclear if Xi Jinping would share the liberal views of his father. Xi Zhongxun was purged under Mao. In later years he fell out again with the party leadership, having supported liberal Communist Party members. He is said to have disapproved of the crackdown on student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. So Xi Jinping will not follow in his father's footsteps. Indeed, it must have been destiny, that the three leaders, whose family history was intertwined with the fate of this region, now deal with each other again.

  2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    Prof. Buruma said, "None of these leaders, Xi, Abe, or Park, want a real war." He was right.

    I said in my first comment below (or above, should I say?) that there were many nationalistc Japanese who wanted to avoid war with the United States. Most, if not all, ultra-nationalits were sympathetic with China. They had many Chinese friends. What the y feared in abhorrence was the encroachment by Western culture, through the process of industrialization and modernization, upon traditional Japanese values; they did not necessarily reject the enjoyment of modern Western amenities, though. They usually amply enjoyed them.

  3. Commentedhari naidu

    What's paramount for CCP leadership is how to neutralize US maritime power in the region. Xi has the back of PLA and his new NSC will (may be) enhance PLA dominance inside Standing Committee decision-making on strategic policy issues and its framework of policy.



    State Power is central to CCP leadership. Japan and other's in the region can only be cowed by a (future) Middle Kingdom with manifest superior military-industrial power.

  4. Commentedtemesgen abate

    the whole panoply of grandstands in the region was made to pirouette on pinheads of the three protagonists.it may nuance the rational but to latch so much hope on whims of personal biography is detrimental.

  5. Commentedtemesgen abate

    the whole panoply of grandstands in the region was made to pirouette on pinheads of the three protagonists.it may nuance the rational but to latch so much hope on whims of personal biography is detrimental.

  6. Commentedtemesgen abate

    the whole panoply of grandstands in the region was made to pirouette on pinheads of the three protagonists.it may nuance the rational but to latch so much hope on whims of personal biography is detrimental.

  7. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    N. Kish (K), Abe's grandfather, was a member of the Tojo cabinet. That was why he was captured as a possible war criminal, because the United States did not have enough experts on Japn and did not know who had made what decisions and when, or who had exerted what influence on what decisons and so started first with arresting all ministers of the Tojo cabinet. The allied forces arrested even Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo and sentenced him to twenty years' imprisonment.
    K was undoubtedly an ulra-nationalistic man but that does not mean he positively wanted war with the United States and Great Britain. (There were many nationalistic Japanese who wanted to avoid confrontation with the United States and Great Britain.) And Manchuria was the most industrialized part of China in 1945 and this was why China was able to fight in the Koean War and also why General MacArthur insisted on bombing it.

    Japan colonized Korea and Taiwan. Of all the colonial powers, Japan seems to have the best and most exemplary and commendablbe. There seem to a good number of specialists who hold this view such as David S. Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations), Buce Cumings (The Legacy of Japanese Colonialism in Korea) and George Akita (Japan in Korea). In Korea, "There as in Taiwan, she embarked upon an ambitious program of economic development and exploitaiton, which brought railways, school systems, factories, and other outward aspects of the modern world to these lands (Edwin. O. Reischauer, Japan:The Story of a Nation)." Money came into use around 1600 and Isabella Bird said that she had never seen such a wretched and filthy capital of a nation as Seoul before going to Beijing. North Korea was the most industiralized part of the Korean Peninsula, which made Kim Il-song, Kim Jon-um's grandfather, bold enough to start the war of aggreion in 1950 and this was why Presiden Park Chung-hee wanted to have money and industrial know-how from Japan. This perhaps reluctant partnership was what the United States wanted to strike between South Korea and Japan. This partnership has endured already for about 50 years solely because of the perpetual intercession of the United States and perhaps, in my view, on account of patience on the part of Japan.

    "They (the Japanese) feel they must retain Chinse goodwill at all costs. They avoid criticism of China and accept meekly Chinese criticism of Japan, no matter how harsh or unfair....
    "There is another side to the picture, however, which makes it more complex. For one thing, the Chinese have never reciprocated the warm feelings of the Japanese, viewing them with distrust and more than a little contempt. The Japanese nostalgia for China has been a classic case of unrequited love (Edwin. O. Reischauer, The Japanese, 1978)."

    If any had gone to China in the 1950's, he/she would have seen without fail the pervasive and rampant anti-American sentiments. He/she might have asked themselves why not anti-Japanese feelings instead of anti-America. In the 1960's they would have found anti-Russian feelings and again might have wondered at the absent anti-Japanese sentiments. These anti-American and anti-Russian sentiments permeating Chinese politic and society co-existed in the 60's until the anti-American feeling disappeared with President Nixon's visit to China. What is to be noted here is the vitriolic vehemence of these feelings, just the same vehemence of the anti-Japanese invectives that resound all over China.

    This anti-Japanese campaign was started around 1994 by Jiang Zemin. The purpose was to divert growing anti-CCP frustration felt among the Chinese people from the CCP.

    There would be hardly any anachonistic right-wing Japanese today in Japan who woudl dream of the project that eluded K (Kish).
    Chian has been slapping Japan on the face for years with impunity and Abe is the first Prime Minister to be trying to correct this and set things between Japan and China right.

    Prof. Buruma said, "Being subservient to American power, as Japan has been since 1945, was the inevitable consequence of a catatrophic war." Believe it or not, since Japan began to modernize in 1868, Japanese foreign policy centered principally around relations with the two Anglo-Saxon countries, Great Britain and the United States and its main theme was to make policies and compromises to win and maintain good terms with these countries, with Great Britain in the 19th century and with the United States in the 20th century. The most popular foreign people among the Japanese in even the pre-war days wereEnglish and Americans. Anyone who is sceptical of this should read Japanese history instead of reading newspapers.

    Mao, Chiang Kai-shek, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Xi Jinping all had one thing in common. It was to restore China to its past glory, China enjoying the central place in world affairs as the Middle Kingdom. Believe or read authentic Chinese history.

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