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East Asia’s Turning Point

NEW DELHI – Political transitions in East Asia promise to mark a defining moment in the region’s jittery geopolitics. After the ascension in China of Xi Jinping, regarded by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as its own man, Japan seems set to swing to the right in its impending election – an outcome likely to fuel nationalist passion on both sides of the Sino-Japanese rivalry.

Japan’s expected rightward turn comes more than three years after voters put the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in power. By contrast, South Korea’s election – scheduled for December 19, just three days after the Japanese go to the polls – could take that country to the left, after the nearly five-year rule of rightist President Lee Myung-bak, who proved to be a polarizing leader.

These political transitions could compound East Asia’s challenges, which include the need to institute a regional balance of power and dispense with historical baggage that weighs down interstate relationships, particularly among China, Japan, and South Korea. Booming trade in the region has failed to mute or moderate territorial and other disputes; on the contrary, it has only sharpened regional geopolitics and unleashed high-stakes brinkmanship. Economic interdependence cannot deliver regional stability unless rival states undertake genuine efforts to mend their political relations.

The scandals surrounding the top aides to Lee – nicknamed “the Bulldozer” from his career as a construction industry executive – have complicated matters for the ruling Saenuri Party’s candidate, Park Geun-hye, and buoyed the hopes of her leftist rival, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party. Park is the daughter of former president, General Park Chung-hee, who seized power in a military coup in 1961.