What is it about northeast Asia? Why is it that a part of the world that is a byword for unparalleled economic development and astounding social transformation can’t come to terms with its past and develop co-operative intra-regional relations?
Northeast Asia ought to be the most important region in the world in many ways. If Japan, China and South Korea could actually act co-operatively and in concert, they might collectively address some of the world’s more pressing problems. If East Asia’s big three actually got on, a number of the world’s more difficult security problems might disappear overnight.
Don’t hold your breath, though. Despite there not being many people around in northeast Asia who can actually remember what went on during the second world war, much less the occupation of Manchuria that preceded it – and let’s not forget the assassination of Korea’s Queen Min at the hands of the Japanese in 1895 (the Koreans haven’t) – historical enmities loom surprisingly large.
And yet perhaps it’s not so surprising. If you switch on Chinese television at just about any hour of the day or night you’ll have the chance to watch at least one, sometimes three or four dramas about conflicts with the Japanese in which plucky Chinese proletarians fight off the evil invaders. Is it really so surprising that young Chinese people grow up with less than fraternal feelings toward their neighbours?
To say that Shinzo Abe’s speech to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat was eagerly anticipated in China would be the proverbial masterpiece of understatement. For weeks the papers have been full of commentators from inside and outside China calling on Japan to make an unambiguous acknowledgement of, and apology for, its actions during the war.
Whatever Abe said was probably likely to disappoint in such circumstances, but his latest effort – like all those that have gone before – failed to hit the mark.
Abe is a forthright champion of Japan’s national interest and part of a political dynasty that stretches back to before the second world war. He has regularly inflamed regional passions by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where a number of prominent war criminals are interred. Perhaps we should have expected nothing more of him.
But at a time when saying sorry has become decidedly fashionable around the world and almost guaranteed to increase the political standing of whoever does so, it’s striking that even 70 years after the events Japan’s leaders can’t make an unambiguous acknowledgement of their past actions and draw the proverbial line.
The contrast with Germany is instructive and regularly made. No-one considers Germany’s appalling past has anything to do with the current generation or its post-war leadership. On the contrary, Germany’s leaders bend over backwards to dispel the idea that they have any hegemonic ambitions in Europe – sometimes at the cost of effective actions.
In Japan, by contrast, its wartime role continues to be airbrushed out of the historical accounts, fuelling the “textbook wars” that have become another bafflingly divisive issue in the region. The question frustrated friends of Japan might reasonably ask of its leaders is whether placating a domestic constituency of right-wing nationalists is worth the diplomatic cost of not definitively drawing an end to the whole sorry saga.
The costs of not doing so continue to be substantial. Unlike Germany, Japan has never been able to provide any sort of regional leadership. True, this is partly because of Japan’s continuing strategic subordination to the US, but its position isn’t helped by its problematic diplomatic profile and China’s barely contained animosity.
The occasionally poisonous relationship with China is perhaps the greatest cost of Japan’s leaders’ failure to unambiguously atone for the past. While Japan’s leaders may be sick of having to go through the diplomatic motions of issuing mealy mouthed circumlocutions, they are giving China a free diplomatic kick as long as they cannot produce the genuine article. It is an opportunity China’s leaders have proved only too happy to take.
China is soon to embark on an orgy of parading, gun-fondling and national commemoration as it celebrates its seemingly ever more significant historic role in bringing about Japan’s defeat during the second world war. There was talk of Abe attending these celebrations at one stage, but it seems unlikely in light of his latest sub-optimal offering.
Perhaps a new generation of leaders in northeast Asia will manage a more cordial commemoration for the 100th anniversary. Or, then again, perhaps not.