Since the end of the 20th century Northeast Asia has emerged as a central force in globalization of the world. But the specter of rising nationalism in the area now threatens to undo the gains that global interdependence has brought to the region and to the world.
"The most important strategic choice the Chinese made was to embrace economic globalization rather than detach themselves from it," wrote leading Chinese reformer and economist Zheng Bijian in his seminal article for Foreign Affairs, "China's Peaceful Rise," in October 2005, a reference to the reform program launched in the late 1970s by Deng Xiaoping. The speed, intensity and breadth of that embrace have transformed the planet.
The first country in Northeast Asia that recognized the imperative of "embracing globalization" was Japan in the late 19th century. Detached in the 1930s, by the 1950s and 1960s Japan was reengaged with the global market economy, providing low-cost, high-quality goods and building up well-known global brands.
Then followed South Korea, which under military dictator Park Chung-hee, 1961 to 1979, embarked on a highly successful export-driven growth strategy. South Korea is the only sizeable developing nation to have risen from deep poverty to first world prosperity.
Today, China, Japan and Korea, respectively the world's second, third and eleventh biggest economies, are significant global economic powers. Collectively they reflect one of the profoundest changes in the 21st century global economy: the emergence of global supply chains. The Apple iPhone, iPod or iPad may be American designs and brands assembled by a Taiwanese company in China, hence labeled "assembled in China," but the devices also contain vital parts, components and technological knowhow from Korea, Japan and many other countries. Billions of consumers worldwide depend on and benefit from products emanating from the Northeast Asian-based supply-chain.
Similarly, the economic growth of many countries, such as Australia, Mozambique and Peru, is driven primarily from supplying commodities to China, including for the manufacture of products in the supply chains.
China, Japan and Korea are one another's major trade and investment partners. Japan has been engaged in outward foreign investments since the 1970s, Korea especially since the late 1990s and more recently China has launched what it calls its "going out" strategy. Thus millions of jobs globally are generated by internationalizing Northeast Asian firms. Similarly while Japan has been a significant source of overseas aid for developing countries for the last three decades, more recently South Korea has gone from being a recipient to a donor, while China since 2009 has provided more loans to Africa than the World Bank, and in Central and South America the China Development Bank has given more aid than the Inter-American Development Bank, the Andean regional bank and the World Bank combined.
While the Chinese, Japanese and Korean economies differ in some respects, they also have strong resemblances. Clearly, industrializing Japan provided a "demonstration effect." The Korean economic structure bears certain similarities with Japan, notably in, for example, the predominance of large conglomerates, with the Korean chaebol modeled on the Japanese zaibatsu, subsequently known askeiretsu. In launching the reforms in China in the late 1970s Deng urged his countrymen to "learn from Japan." China, Japan and Korea are also Confucian societies, which scholars suggest accounts at least, in part, for the strong emphasis all three have given to education, widely believed to be a powerful driving force in the countries' respective economic development.
China, Japan and Korea individually and collectively through the supply chain greatly depend on the global market economy, while the global market economy greatly depends, and increasingly so, on the Northeast Asian economic powers individually and collectively.
In that context there is a problem, indeed a cause for alarm. While China, Japan and South Korea may have embraced economic globalization, they have emphatically not embraced one another. Occasional attempts at patching old wounds up notwithstanding, the Northeast Asian powers display a tremendous lack of trust. This mistrust can generate what is at times profound hatred manifested in outbursts of violent nationalism and xenophobia.