A Time for U.S. Diplomacy in East Asia

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post on May 6, 2005.

A new security dynamic has emerged in the Far East – one in which an increasingly powerful China and a strong Japan must co-exist for the foreseeable future. Because of this, the United States cannot afford to stand silently by as relations between these two nations deteriorate. Although it may be tempting to join the chorus of commentators who have dismissed the massive protests in China as simply the hypocritical posturing of a repressive communist country against its virtuous democratic neighbor, to do so would be dangerous for the United States.

We are not simply witnessing a routine flare-up of the longstanding animosity between these countries, but rather what could be – if left unchecked – the beginning of a long downward spiral in Sino-Japanese relations that would be damaging to the security interests of the United States, particularly with regard to North Korea. To prevent this from occurring, the United States must become actively engaged in fostering better relations between Japan and China, and part of this process must be an acknowledgement of the role that the U.S. has played in the development of a post-war Japan that has never been compelled to confront its dark past.

The United States has placed its hopes for a peaceful resolution of the North Korea nuclear crisis squarely on China’s shoulders. By refusing to engage in bilateral talks with North Korea and refusing to put any clear incentives or security pledges on the negotiating table, the Bush administration can only exert pressure on the North Korean regime through China (upon which North Korea remains dependent for food and energy). Japan, due to geographical proximity if nothing else, is perhaps even more fearful of a nuclear North Korea than we are, and one simple way for China to torment Japan is to draw out endlessly negotiations on Kim Jong Il’s nuclear program. Though Japan would be the target of China’s anger, the United States would suffer as well.

Worsening relations between China and Japan will also further damage an already strained U.S.-South Korean alliance, which again would be a serious blow to our efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. Any strategy that involves “squeezing” North Korea through economic and military embargoes, of course, requires the full and determined cooperation of the South. Though it is blatant hypocritical for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s to declare that “Japan needs to face up to history squarely,” it is far harder to dismiss South Korea’s anger over what they perceive as an insufficiently contrite or introspective Japan – a Japan where the prime minister pays visits to a shrine that commemorates, among others, 14 Class A convicted war criminals; where six of eight state sanctioned textbooks make no mention of the tens of thousands of “comfort women” who were forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese in WWII; and where the textbook used by the majority of students whitewashes the forcible relocation of some 700,000 people to Japan to serve as laborers during the war.

Yet in the eyes of many South Koreans, the United States quickly dismisses such legitimate concerns because we value our alliance with Japan far more than we do our alliance with South Korea (notwithstanding the fact that we have some 30,000 troops stationed in their country, including a number deployed along the demilitarized zone who would serve as a “tripwire” for U.S. engagement if North Korea were to invade). Thus, when the South Koreans protest against Japan’s refusal to reckon more fully with its imperialist past, they are also expressing their displeasure at the United States for giving Japan a free pass, and our crucial alliance suffers.

Interestingly, the South Koreans are more right than most Americans realize when they see a connection between Japan’s historical myopia and U.S. foreign policy. As World War II ended and the Cold War began, the United States made the strategic decision to use Japan as a strong Pacific bulwark against the Soviet Union. Thus, to expedite the process of rebuilding and rearming Japan, the United States chose to keep the entire professional bureaucracy and military industrial complex of Imperial Japan virtually intact. Moreover, at MacArthur’s insistence, the Emperor himself was spared from the military tribunals so that he could remain a stabilizing figurehead for the Japanese, thus undermining the legitimacy of the trials as a whole. As a result of these decisions, Japan was never compelled to go through the kind of self-reckoning that, for instance, Germany has had to undergo.

Given the recent news that North Korea has closed one of its nuclear power plants with the possible intent of using the reactor fuel for the construction of yet more nuclear weapons, the U.S. cannot afford to sit quietly while Sino-Japanese relations deteriorate and the U.S.-South Korea alliance suffers. Rather, we must get involved immediately and acknowledge our own role in the controversy.

Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Pete Ogden is Coordinator of the Center for American Progress’s International Rights and Responsibilities program.