Asia’s Historical Furies

TOKYO – A country’s foreign policy is supposed to be aimed, first and foremost, at advancing its national interest. But, in large parts of Asia, the national interest – whether building commercial ties or bolstering security – is often subordinated to history and its hold on the popular imagination. As US Vice President Joe Biden just discovered on his tour of Japan, China, and South Korea, the American novelist William Faulkner’s observation – “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – could not be more apt.

One commonly cited example of this is the relationship between India and Pakistan. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recognize the vast economic potential of enhanced bilateral trade ties, and the progress that they have sought in this area is clearly in both countries’ national interest. But their diplomatic overtures have been quickly stymied by those who cannot accept such reasoning, going so far at times as to commit acts of terror and launch military incursions.

But Asia’s history problem is not confined to its democracies, where public opinion directly influences the government’s actions. China and Vietnam, too, remain in thrall of their long and bitter shared history. The late General Vo Nguyen Giap, who led Vietnam through wars with France and the United States to independence, spent his final years protesting against Chinese investment in his country.

Perhaps Asia’s most dangerous case of historical obsession is to be found in the relationship between China and Japan. The current dispute in the East China Sea over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands (the Diaoyu Islands in China) would likely be less tense if the atrocities of the Sino-Japanese War were not rehashed so often in contemporary Chinese life.