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.