Breaking Imperial Designs: East Asian countries must resolve historical issues for common growth

Beijing Review | 作者: Shi Yongming | 时间: 2019-07-25 | 责编: Wang Jiapei
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Recently, historical disputes between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan have spilled over into the technology and trade areas. Japan tightened restrictions on the export of three materials used in hi-tech equipment to the ROK, which inflicted great damage on the country's enterprises.

Japan's move echoed U.S. curbs against China's telecommunications enterprise Huawei. It not only posed a severe threat to the cooperation with the ROK but also brought challenges to regional collaboration. More to the point, it put added pressure on the world's free trade system.

But why did this situation suddenly emerge? In reality, the development of the East Asian region has never shaken off the historical burdens of World War II (WWII). The recent tension between Japan and the ROK reminded regional countries that their future growth hinges on the settlement of historical disputes.

Historical grievances

These complex issues have long disturbed ties between Japan and the ROK. Although the U.S. and Japan have promoted value diplomacy to contain China, Japan and the ROK have always been at odds on historical matters.

An ROK Supreme Court ruling last November ordered a Japanese company to compensate Koreans who were forced into labor during WWII, which was rejected by the Japanese Government. The ROK high court responded by ordering the seizure of the assets of Japanese enterprises in the ROK.

Japan asserted that claims for compensation, including the forced labor issue, were "already settled" in the Agreement Between Japan and the Republic of Korea Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation signed in 1965, when the two sides restored diplomatic ties. In contrast, the ROK held that this treaty did not terminate citizens' right to claim compensation.

Although issues such as forced labor and the use of "comfort women"—girls or women forced into sex slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army—happened during the war, their compensation should be separated from war reparations. Firstly, these practices violated the basic and common rules and laws of modern countries. Secondly, these violations of human rights were avoidable. Moreover, based on prevailing international practice in modern society and relevant laws, a country cannot deprive its citizens of their right to defend their interests in the international arena.

Japan, which claims it's a modern, democratic and free country, should understand this logic very well. However, it has always insisted on solving issues of people's compensation claims through governmental negotiations while ignoring citizens' personal rights. Guided by this logic, Japan and the ROK signed an "ultimate and irreversible" agreement in December 2015, which was widely opposed by ROK residents because they saw it as breaching citizens' rights. Japan intended to solve the dispute through this agreement, but instead only intensified tensions.

The Japanese Government's whitewashing of history is the deeper reason behind the aggravated tension between Japan and the ROK. The Shinzo Abe administration of Japan, which has always claimed to hold the banner of democracy, freedom and human rights, tried to whitewash Japan's crimes against humanity committed during WWII. On the one hand, Japan rejected the demand for compensation for forced labor by citing the agreement reached with the ROK; on the other hand, Japan adopted historical revisionism, which denies and distorts historical truths, adding insult to injury for those who suffered under its occupation during the war.

These deeds angered victims and stimulated them to seek compensation through legal measures. The thrust of compensation claims was to make Japan admit to and apologize for its historical crimes. However, the Japanese Government refused to comply. Finally, the ROK court reacted by ruling in a way that was unacceptable to the Japanese side.

Japan's historical revisionism also harmed its ties with China and other East Asian countries. It has had a negative effect on the solidarity and common development of East Asia. Therefore, whether Japan can shake off the shadow of imperialism is an important factor for regional growth.

The role of the U.S.

As the common ally of Japan and the ROK, the U.S. has been promoting a military alliance among the three countries. The tension between the ROK and Japan has clearly impeded the U.S. plan. But why didn't the U.S. effectively mediate between its two allies?

As a matter of fact, the dispute between the ROK and Japan is a result of the U.S. policy in the region, which intends to dominate Asia by controlling Asian countries after the Cold War.

Occupation, slavery and expansion have been the methods used by empires to gain influence since the Roman Empire. For example, the UK exploited Indians to expand its influence in other Asian regions after it occupied India. After WWII, the U.S. appeared to play the role of protector for some Asian countries, yet it gradually dominated the military and diplomatic affairs of its allies through this so-called protection.

After the Cold War, reconciliation was widely reached among East Asian countries, with peace and development becoming the dominant trend. However, the U.S. moved against this trend. It strengthened strategic deployment in the Asian and Pacific military front and adopted a differentiation policy. Dominating Asia through Asian countries became its fundamental Asian and Pacific policy, under which the U.S. now peddles its Indo-Pacific strategy.

The U.S. relied on Japan, establishing several military bases there to maintain its military presence in Asia. Since the Cold War, it has consolidated its alliance with Japan to turn it into a bridgehead to control Asia. To this end, the U.S. adopted a supportive policy toward Japan's rightwing conservative forces and held a tolerant attitude toward Japan's historical revisionism. It also advanced Japan's militarization and promoted U.S.-Japan military cooperation. The U.S. actually indulged Japan's unreasonable attitude toward history, encouraging it to deal unscrupulously with its past.

In fact, amid the recent Japan-ROK tension, the U.S. poured oil on the flames. The U.S.-led United Nations Command, established in 1950, allegedly pushed to include Japan—the previous suzerain of the Korean Peninsula—in its ranks, which would pave the way for Japan's military involvement in any armed conflict on the peninsula. This move was a subversion of the international order after WWII and a rejection of the anti-fascist nature of the war.

It is clear that U.S. policy, which focuses on maintaining its hegemony in the region, is the root cause of the current turmoil in Asia, and it may continue.

Base for lasting peace

East Asia could be the center of the world economy in the future with its great growth potential, based on its enormous population, giant productivity and huge consumption market. After the Cold War, East Asia's sustainable and fast growth relied much on regional peace and stability.

In the past, East Asian countries have tried to achieve regional economic growth through political communication and promote political trust through economic development within the region. Based on the benign interaction between political and economic advancement, they believed there would be lasting peace, stability and prosperity in the region.

However, backed by the U.S. in recent years, an old imperial logic is haunting East Asia. According to this rationale, common development under a free trade system is interpreted as cutthroat competition; the industrial chains, which evolved after years of free trade, are being used as a weapon to curb other countries' growth; and economic interdependence is exploited to bully competitors. Japan is not only imitating U.S. trade practices, but also showing an inward imperial logic, which poses a threat to Japan-ROK ties and the peace and prosperity of East Asia.

If the first stage of globalization was the expansion of Western empires and the second was the popularization of the market economy, then the third phase should be the realization of common security. Without common security, globalization cannot move forward. Therefore, countries must break through the constraints of historical bottlenecks and Western imperial narrative rules, and strive to build a community with a shared future for humanity.


The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and an expert on international studies.



Source: Beijing Review, JULY 22, 2019