TCS Daily

Nationalism on the Rise?

By Jason Miks - May 2, 2006 12:00 AM

What's in a name? Quite a lot judging by the latest diplomatic spat between Japan and South Korea. Last week saw another twist in the disputed ownership of a group of islands lying between the two countries, which the Japanese call "Takeshima" and the South Koreans "Dokdo". The islands lie close to the middle of the Sea of Japan which separates the two countries, but the issue is complicated by the fact that both nations claim they fall in their own Exclusive Economic Zone. Though the isles are largely uninhabitable they are located in rich fishing grounds -- and the possibility of unexploited energy resources worth perhaps billions of dollars has also been raised.

The situation threatened to come to a head when Japan expressed its intention to send two ships to survey the area, a move which was followed by Seoul placing its coast guard on high alert and sending 20 of its own ships to the area with a promise to take "stern" action if necessary. Tensions were eased by Tokyo's decision to call off the survey if South Korea dropped plans to register Korean names for seabed areas near the islands at an international conference in June.

Yet the underlying significance of the dispute was underscored by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who said that South Korea does not view the survey as an isolated incident, but instead a part of Japan's refusal to show adequate contrition for its tough colonial rule over the region between 1910 to 1945. This view has been vigorously aired in the Korean media, with the Korean Herald lambasting Japan's 'expansionism' and desire for 'regional hegemony'. Indeed the paper went on to suggest that if the Japanese public does not realise that Asia cannot be "trampled" then "we need to take the lead in letting them realize that".

Such rhetoric is not, unfortunately, confined to inflamed tempers on this one issue, but is instead part of a worrying tendency in the region to exploit nationalist sentiment for political gain. President Roh has been languishing in the polls and a presidential election is due next year. Although he is not eligible to run again (unless the constitution is amended) he is keen to avoid the lame duck label and would undoubtedly like to improve the prospects of any preferred successor.

President Roh is not alone. Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has needlessly aggravated tensions with both South Korea and China with his insistence on visiting the controversial Yasukuni shrine where the bodies of 14 Class A war criminals are also enshrined. His likely successor when he steps down in September, Shinzo Abe, has also been keen to court nationalist support by outspokenly embracing Koizumi's visits and hinting he will continue them -- overtures which may create an unnecessary diplomatic bind in the future.

Japanese and South Korean politicians have been joined by Taiwan's President Chen, who has in recent months been increasingly provocative in suggesting Taiwan's right to independence -- likely to the annoyance of its most important ally, the United States, which has done its best to keep a distance from the dispute, but which has pledged to defend the province against military aggression.

Added to this mix is the idea of a "Chinese dream" which China's government argues is simply an uplifting vision, but which has obvious potential to be exploited for the sake of regional nationalism. The dangers of doing so were on display last year when Japanese revision of school textbooks led to, at times violent, protests against the Japanese Embassy and businesses; yet initially at least they seemed to have tacit support from the Chinese authorities.

But even though governments in the region may feel that this type of passion can be usefully mastered, they may, instead, find it can quickly run out of control. Emotions generated by the Second World War are still painfully raw in much of Asia, and are too often used as a stick with which to beat opponents and to raise the political stakes.

If the countries in the region are going to co-habit peacefully, therefore, they must avoid the temptation to fall back on old nationalisms when they need a political boost -- or distraction -- at home. South Koreans and the Chinese need to understand that young Japanese can only feel so much responsibility for the actions of their forefathers, and the insistent and vocal criticism of Japan is more likely to aggravate than address any ill-feelings. For its part, Japan's leaders need to appreciate that there are ways to assert a leading diplomatic role without treading clumsily upon another country's toes, and Koizumi's successors must heed the polls suggesting deep concern amongst the Japanese at the deterioration of Japan's relations with its neighbours. Indeed, addressing these regional concerns is essential if Japan is to garner sufficient support for a long coveted permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Essentially, these nations need to stop fighting old battles in the diplomatic arena and the media. No apologies are going to change what happened 60 years ago, and an inter-generation blame-game can only be counterproductive. In fact, there are far too many new economic and security challenges to be dealt with for regional leaders to dredge up old ones.

Jason Miks is a Tokyo-based writer and Assistant Editor at the Center for International Relations.


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