Nationalism Rises in Northeast Asia

By Jean-Pierre Lehmann
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For the Chinese and Koreans, the suspicions and nationalism are directed against Japan because of past actions for which it has not, they argue, atoned, and currently manifested in acute territorial disputes in the East China Sea. These disputes have escalated in recent months; alarm bells are ringing throughout much of East Asia, especially in respect to the Sino-Japanese confrontation. In reaction, strong anti-Chinese and anti-Korean nationalism has re-emerged in Japan, in good part driven by overt collective amnesia and negation about past atrocities. Recently elected Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, whose grandfather Kishi Nobusuke served in the wartime cabinet of Tojo Hideki, for example, denies, despite overwhelming evidence, that the Japanese engaged in sexual slavery during World War Two in Korea or elsewhere.

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In South Korea there is the legacy of China's role in the Korean War and support, even if ambivalent, of the regime in Pyongyang. Japan and Korea worry more about China's future goals.

This anxiety, it must be stressed, is not a Northeast Asian monopoly. Countries in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, also worry about China's apparent nationalist territorial expansion, and India looks upon China's ambitions suspiciously. China's "peaceful rise" would appear to be a distant, forlorn dream. Reality is more brutal and ugly. Nationalism is a powerful Chinese political force.

From the viewpoint of global economic interdependence, it is the three economic juggernauts and their collective impact on the global economy through the global supply chain that matters most. Today it must be recognized that while the embrace of globalization have generated great prosperity for all three countries - in stark contrast to North Korea which still rejects globalization and interdependence - by no means has it ensured trust, let alone peace.

While history does not repeat itself and comparisons are, by definition, odious, it is difficult not to draw parallels between Northeast Asia in the early 21st century and Europe in the first half of the 20th. It's probably the case that if the economy seriously deteriorated, as it did in the 1930s, that this would exacerbate nationalist tensions between the Northeast Asian powers, but it is not at all obvious that if the economic situation were to considerably improve, especially in Japan, that this would diffuse nationalist tensions. Economics alone, it seems, cannot trump emotions.

Whereas Chinese, Japanese and Korean tourists once flocked to one another's countries, there has been recently a significant decrease in traffic. Furthermore, while the "pop-scene," encompassing Canto-pop, Mando-pop, J-pop and K-pop, created an increasingly united Northeast Asian regional musical space, nationalist backlashes have also arisen; the Japanese NHK popular new year song festival has this year eliminated Korean singers. That is ominous.

As the forces of xenophobia are irrational, it is difficult to know what measures need to be taken beyond banal platitudes. Perhaps the first step is for the international community to recognize the perilousness of Northeast Asian geopolitics. If the fuse goes off on the Northeast Asia powder keg, the consequences will be immediate, global and dramatic. If, on the other hand, global governance would improve, so might governance in Northeast Asia.

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Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor of international political economy, IMD, Switzerland; founder of The Evian Group; and visiting professor at Hong Kong University. © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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