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.

In fact, Japan has attempted to atone for its past actions, including by offering enthusiastic support to Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to open up the Chinese economy. The trillions of yen that Japanese businesses have invested in China since the 1990’s – not to mention the transfer of critical technologies – could not have been about profit alone (and, in any case, Japanese investment has benefited both economies).

But, while these efforts have helped to deepen Japan’s economic ties with China, they have not had the transformative impact on bilateral relations that one might have expected. Indeed, their relationship is now characterized by what the Japanese call seirei keinetsu (cold politics, hot economics).

Bad history also stalks the relationship between Japan and South Korea – a particularly revealing case, given how closely their strategic interests align. Here are two democracies, both among America’s closest allies, unable to overcome the burden of the past. For South Koreans, it is a heavy burden, rooted in Japanese colonization and the myriad horrors of World War II. But the simple fact is that both countries would benefit substantially, in security terms in particular, from effective cooperation.

In fact, serei keinetsu defines the Asian status quo: countries that cannot seem to overcome their historical animosities when it comes to foreign policy readily acknowledge that better relations means better economies. East Asia, in particular, has experienced an unprecedented surge in intra-regional trade, investment, and even tourism over the last two decades.

Yet there is reason for hope – and it is coming from an unexpected source. With China’s efforts to assert itself as a regional hegemon stoking fears across Asia, its neighbors seem to be increasingly willing to vacate old grudges in favor of stronger alliances. For example, Japan’s relations with Vietnam and Myanmar, both of which border China, have been warming rapidly in recent years – a trend that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to cultivate.

Likewise, the Philippines – locked in a stand-off with China over the disputed Scarborough shoal – has set aside its resentment over Japan’s wartime occupation and accepted increased aid and naval assistance, including ten patrol vessels, worth $11 million each, to help with maritime surveillance. Filipino Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario has even declared publicly that the country would welcome a more muscular Japanese defense policy to offset China’s military buildup.

One reason for this turnaround is that many in the Philippines have felt somewhat abandoned by the US in their confrontation with China. With China increasingly asserting claims to territories in the South and East China Seas, other Asian countries may also find the burden of history to be too great an impediment to their future prospects.

Japan could go a long way toward helping its neighbors overcome the poisoned past that it shares with so many of them as a result of its old imperial ambitions. Just as US President Richard Nixon’s unyielding anti-communism uniquely suited him to establish diplomatic relations with China, Abe, an affirmed nationalist, may be the Japanese politician best able to blend contrition for the past with forthrightness about the present.

The good news is that Abe has shown signs of this kind of courage. At a 2006 summit with Chinese leaders during his first stint as Japan’s prime minister, he agreed to establish a joint commission, involving historians from Japan, China, and elsewhere, to study twentieth-century history. The idea was that the commission could make unbiased recommendations about contentious issues like the contents of history textbooks and even the Yasukuni shrine, a nationalist pilgrimage site where the remains of Japanese war criminals, among others, are interred.

If Abe revived this initiative today, he could help to dampen the regional antagonism he faces in trying to make Japan a “normal” country, with a military capable of participating in collective regional defense. Such an initiative may not work with China, where the government still uses the war with Japan to rouse nationalist sentiment. But countries like South Korea that are feeling the pressure of China’s rise – as demonstrated by the current furor over China’s unilateral expansion of its air defense zone – may well reciprocate such an effort. That alone should be reason enough for Abe to act.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.


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