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Big news this week in Asia: For the first time since both entered office more than a year ago, Japanese leader Shinzo Abe and South Korean leader Park Geun-hye met, on the sidelines of a nuclear-security summit in the Netherlands. That this first meeting was so significant reveals how dysfunctional relations are between Tokyo and Seoul these days. And the beneficiary of this state of affairs, of course, is China.
Not content with years of encroaching on disputed maritime territory in the East and South China seas, China recently has concentrated on resurrecting the ghosts of Imperial Japan to delegitimize and isolate today’s democratic Japan, which is the only nearby power capable of derailing China’s ambitions. This approach is popular with South Korea, a fellow 20th-century victim of Imperial Japan.
In January, China dedicated a memorial to Ahn Jung-geun, the Korean who in 1909 assassinated Japan’s first prime minister and the de facto governor-general of Korea, Ito Hirobumi, in the Chinese city of Harbin. China’s memorial delights South Koreans, who consider Ahn a national hero. Most countries might want to forget being an unintentional third party to a major assassination, but today China chooses to celebrate it. In doing so, Beijing further drives a wedge between Tokyo and Seoul.
Besides poisoning Japanese-Korean relations, Beijing has established two new anti-Japanese national holidays in China, officially attempting to foment anti-Japanese hatred among the next generation of Chinese. The first holiday will mark the Japanese surrender to the Allies in 1945, while the other will honor the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.
It would be understandable if Beijing had begun commemorating either event with a national holiday decades ago, when wounds were still raw and the country was recovering from the war. But why make such a move more than 75 years later, when Japan and China are among each other’s top trading partners, when diplomatic relations have been restored for four decades, and after Japan has provided billions of dollars in development aid to China?
Chinese President Xi Jinping apparently believes that fomenting anti-Japanese hatred is in his government’s interest. China has willfully worsened ties and refused to practice responsible diplomacy. Perhaps Mr. Xi thinks he can control the passions he is feeding, or perhaps he doesn’t want to.
Beijing’s actions should serve as a major warning sign to those who believe that diplomatic relations between Northeast Asia’s largest powers will eventually improve due to the importance of economic relations. Such neo-liberal assumptions are being put to the test by old-fashioned national interests and the assertive policies that accompany them. Northeast Asia’s three great powers deeply distrust, if not hate, each other. They may trade regularly and meet at international summits, but they are more than willing to risk letting nationalist passions trump cooperation.
Japanese Prime Minister Abe has had no effective response to China’s hate machine. His December visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which memorializes war criminals, only helped harden anti-Japanese feelings in Beijing and Seoul. Even confirming that his government won’t revise prior Japanese acknowledgments of wartime atrocities, such as the conscription of “comfort women” for the Imperial army, has not helped.
But there is actually little that Japan can do given its neighbors’ relentless opposition. Mr. Abe could emphasize his support for previous Japanese apologies and distance himself from Japan’s vocal right wing. Yet those are but excuses that Beijing uses to portray largely pacifist Japan as a nation dangerous to all of Asia.
Ultimately there is little reason to believe that the entrenched attitudes on all sides will change, which should worry everyone concerned about stability in Northeast Asia. Sooner or later there will be a price to pay for irresponsible statesmanship.
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