Thursday, November 20, 2014

Asia’s Patriotic Gore

TOKYO – If a space alien landed in East Asia today, it would find a region shaped by rapid economic transformation, complex geopolitical dynamics, and deep historical animosities. Perhaps viewing the region from such a perspective is exactly what Asia’s leaders need to do to ensure that its positive trends continue – and to halt the dangerous ones.

Our alien guest would most likely land in East Asia’s largest country, China, where three decades of phenomenal economic growth have lifted millions out of poverty and transformed Chinese society. Yet China retains its traditional Sino-centric worldview, which it seems keen to impose on its neighbors. Indeed, as China expands its military resources, it is taking increasingly bold steps to assert its dominance over sea-lanes in all directions – provoking both anxiety and ire among its regional neighbors.

In Japan, which China recently overtook as the world’s second-largest economy, the visitor would find a country more interested in protecting its citizens’ living standards and relatively stable political system than economic or political dominance. Nonetheless, Japan is eager to reestablish itself as a fully independent country, free of the guilt and obligations stemming from World War II. In a sense, it seeks to complete the diplomatic equivalent of what in the Japanese samurai tradition is called genbuku – a sort of coming-of-age ceremony, after which it would be considered a normal “adult” country.

Nearby South Korea, too, is working to transcend a painful past, which included being the battleground for both the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars. In Koreans’ view, the tragedy that their country endured over the past two centuries merits their neighbors’ acceptance of their view of history, especially concerning WWII.

The resulting rift between Japan and South Korea creates a problem for another key player in the region: the United States. Given America’s diminished capacity to provide global leadership, it must rely more than ever on its allies to ensure that regional and global affairs hew to its ideals and interests – which include preserving the Pax Americana that has shaped East Asian affairs since WWII.

If the alien taking all of this in had some knowledge of game theory (at least a general understanding of its uses in assessing conflict), it would immediately comprehend that all of the relevant countries’ objectives – whether territorial or related to historical narratives – cannot be fully satisfied simultaneously. But the challenge goes further: disputes over territory and history may well amount to a zero-sum situation or, worse, a prisoner’s dilemma, in which mistrust and betrayal exact a heavy price from the parties involved.

Consider Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial visit last December to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors those who died in the service of Imperial Japan from the Meiji Restoration until 1951 – including 14 Class A war criminals from the Pacific War. Contrary to the prevailing interpretation, Abe’s visit was not intended to celebrate the brutal aspects of Japan’s history or justify its cause in WWII; Abe was driven by the sincere desire to honor those who sacrificed their lives for his country. He was genuinely practicing politics faithful to what Max Weber called the “ethics of conviction.”

But the international community was not interested in that distinction. Condemnation of Abe’s visit was to be expected from China and South Korea, which felt firsthand the devastation wrought by Japanese militarism. But few anticipated that the US would adopt such a harsh tone in expressing its displeasure – a response that was likely driven by America’s fear for the region’s increasingly fragile peace (and perhaps, on some level, by the recollection of Japan as the enemy that attacked Pearl Harbor).

The US has a point. The fact is that, regardless of leaders’ intentions, such disputes can undermine cooperation, creating a zero-sum situation. Abe may have to consider further Weber’s “ethics of responsibility,” which unlike the ethics of conviction, focuses on the consequences of an action, not the intention behind it.

In this sense, competing territorial claims – like those of Japan and China for the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands in the East China Sea – pose a particularly intractable challenge, given the virtual impossibility of reaching a compromise. That is why the dispute is fueling rising tension between the two countries, undermining their ability to expand cooperation in ways that would benefit both.

For example, China’s territorial claim is preventing it from accessing the jobs – and the associated knowledge and technology transfers – that deeper economic cooperation with Japan would offer. Similarly, Japan is missing the opportunity to provide China with tools to reduce air pollution, much of which blows toward the Japanese archipelago.

It is up to politicians and diplomats to move countries from no-win impasses to the kind of mutually beneficial outcomes that are almost always found in trade and investment. Fortunately, though Abe has been criticized for embracing nationalism, he is in a position to play an instrumental role in deepening Japan’s economic relationships with its neighbors.

In fact, it is something of an iron law of politics that only foreign-policy hawks and nationalists can deliver such outcomes: consider US President Richard Nixon’s opening to China in 1972, or Charles de Gaulle’s resolution of France’s war in Algeria. Perhaps only leaders like Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye – leaders whose patriotic credentials are unquestioned – can do what it takes to transform East Asia’s zero-sum games into win-win policies.

Of course, space aliens are unlikely to arrive in East Asia anytime soon. But one can easily imagine that they, like us, would prefer to land in a prosperous region in which countries pursue mutually beneficial cooperation, rather than in a zone of simmering conflicts where competing territorial and historical claims have thwarted the inhabitants’ vast potential.

This commentary reflects the author’s personal views, not that of the Japanese government.

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    1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Mr. Koichi Hamada is right about the conflict in a "region shaped by rapid economic transformation, complex geopolitical dynamics, and deep historical animosities". It is also a pity that these countries lack regional institutions that bind them together and coerce them to interact and cooperate.
      It is true that China has seen "three decades of phenomenal economic growth", but it is still a Communist country and its "traditional Sino-centric worldview" is centrally orchestrated. China's economic strength attracts global envy, yet its ambtion to dominate the region have also unsettled its neighbours. Their fear rises, when senior officers in the People's Liberation Army make no secret of their massive military buildup, sending an unnerving signal that China has the firepower to claim disputed territory far from its coastal waters. It also contradicts repeated assurances of a "peaceful rise" from the civilian leadership in Beijing.
      There is nothing wrong that Japan is "protecting its citizens’ living standards and relatively stable political system than economic or political dominance" and nobody objects that "Japan is eager to reestablish itself as a fully independent country". Nevertheless it is not "free of the guilt and obligations stemming from World War II". Disputes over territory and the record of Japan's war time aggression have severely damaged relations between Japan and its neighbours.
      The leadership under Shinzo Abe and many of his supporters had initially questioned the "Kono statement" in 1993 which offered an apology, admitting for the first time that Japanese army had played a direct or indirect role in the forced recruitment of Asian women. China and South Korea had accused Japan of trying to rewrite history. Only after protests did Abe's cabinet uphold the position outlined by previous administrations on Japan's war-time past. Nevertheless it said it would still reconsider the historical facts on which the statement was made.
      That Japan is reluctant to come to terms with its hawkish past means it is unwilling to help build bridges over troubled waters to South Korea and China. Mr. Hamada says, Abe "was genuinely practicing politics faithful to what Max Weber called the "ethics of conviction" and advises him to also adopt Weber's "ethics of responsibility". Indeed Japan should learn from the post-war Germany, which is still on the lookout for Nazi war criminals.
      If the visit of a Japanese prime minister to the Yasukuni Shrine sparks controversy, because it "honors those who died in the service of Imperial Japan from the Meiji Restoration until 1951 – including 14 Class A war criminals from the Pacific War", why can't those "14 Class A war criminals" be "honoured" somewhere else?
      Indeed it is a matter of political will "to move countries from no-win impasses to the kind of mutually beneficial outcomes". Even if Abe is "in a position to play an instrumental role in deepening Japan’s economic relationships with its neighbors", leaders like Xi Jinping and Park Geun Hye would still appreciate a gesture of reconciliation from Japan.

    2. CommentedDaryl stevens

      To All Who are Subsumed to the Devices of Those Who Manipulate Nationalistic Memes:

      You need to move on. A nation is not a person. If has apologized, for the betterment of your children's future, rather than the immaturity of your needy graspy, ego-driven desire to be right, or to place an enduring stigma on a very powerful, if aging country, with the second most tehcnologically advanced military in the world, who has a right to exist in its present format, and to honor those things of national importnace, if the war dead of those who have done horrendous acts, do colocate at the same site.

      For Buddhists, Shintoists, Animists and similar who honer the spirits of their ancestors, as such, you know, that while you want to criticize, you are asking the other to do an impossible thing, and this is built to do nothing but manipulate the masses of your own people. Tragedy is something to move past, not to wallow on, and use manipulatively for other purposes. further, considerate of history, and globally it is immature notion.

      Attila the Hun, massacred by the thousands, and millions, as did Ghenghis, and so many everywhere, the notion that the feudal pasts of current geographies as nations, are not replete with such tragedies, is an impossible fantastical comedy that you portray upon yourself, if the hopeless moralizing of superficial pop-culture does enable this. let all move on, and look to the future, or you might relive that past.

      It reminds me of the time I was in the recent post wall Eastern Europe, and a guy ran up to me, drunken, and said, I am not a Nazi, and I said, I know, don't worry about it, you were not even alive then, just don't listen to that garbage, rehashing this, and forcing others to continue to mull over it, and to subsume all other relations to it, is preposterously immature.

    3. CommentedByung Gook Han

      Professor Hamada- As a mentor of Abe, I hope you didn't include nationalism in any of three arrows in Abenomics. If Abe is truly driven by his sincere desire to honor those who sacrificed their lives for Japan, why doesn't he visit legitimate place called national cemetery, where Hagel and Kerry visited a few months ago? Even Justin Bieber had to apologize for posting pictures of visiting Yaskuni. I believe that PM of Japan deserves better respect than Bieber with more appropriate words and action.

      As much as Japanese are fed up with repeated request for apologies from neighbors, the neighbors are sick of continued visits to Yaskuni and rhetorics by Japanese cabinet members.

      Until you realize that there has been something more fundamentally and morally wrong exercising imperialism other than simply losing the war in 1945, your neighbors will rightfully do their best not to forget the history. In the end, your neighbors understand that history repeats itself.

    4. CommentedYanlin Frank

      Cooperation needs mutual respect. Part of the reason causing the impasse in East Asia is: the Abe government fails to respect historical facts and ignores the consequences of hurting neighboring countries like China and South Korea even though they have their "reasonable" intentions. The world has been increasingly connected closely together that even America the world "leader" -who has suffered from its diminished power over the world affairs - needs to cooperate with its allies to achieve a balance. Cooperation needs reciprocity- for instance, if Japan respects the history facts and talks with China just as German and France did 51 years ago, she can be a normal "adult" country as the author put it. Again, iron politics is most effective when the bottom lines of countries concerned are respected; otherwise, it will disturb the normal relationships among the countries and cause undesired consequences on economy and other aspects of a nation. The bottom line is: mutual understanding and respect on history facts, which are conducive to economic prosperity as well as political harmony; however, it's easier said than done because every country has their respective core interests which can't be relinquished. Nevertheless, if every country can take a step back and negotiate on the basis of respecting history facts to look for some common grounds, beneficial cooperation is just around the corner.