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Rookie trio make for a leadership deficit in East Asia

by Jeff Kingston

With three new leaders taking power over the past year — in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing (and a fourth in Pyongyang two years ago) — 2013 was never likely to be a banner year for regional diplomacy. But I didn’t expect it to get quite this bad.

It is normal for new leaders to grandstand and posture and take tough stands, because they want to impress while consolidating power. Under such circumstances, the spirit of compromise suffers, as anything smacking of concessions is taboo. There is not much room to establish trust and dialogue if leaders keep talking past one another on the issues that divide them, while sticking with policies and stances that are sources of regional tensions.

Summitry is no cure-all and can involve more pomp than substance, but top-level, eyeball-to-eyeball meetings can also generate some momentum and provide opportunities for direct exchanges between leaders that may reveal previously unexplored common ground.

East Asian leaders seem to be all relying on flawed navigation systems that suggest taking impassable roads and offer no alternative routes. Thus we are at a regional impasse whose responsibility is widely shared, yet there are few signs anyone is preparing to hit the reset button.

A flurry of regional meetings in recent months has produced no breakthroughs, and despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hyperactive diplomacy, criss-crossing the region to bolster Japan’s ties in Southeast Asia, leaders there are not keen on confronting China and would rather see more conciliatory initiatives.

It’s time to reinvigorate diplomatic ties in East Asia, because there is so much at stake in a region that serves as a hub of the global economy. There is the risk of overlooking ongoing cooperation in a range of areas that don’t attract much limelight (environment, aging, pandemics and other nontraditional threats to security), but hopes are fading that bold posturing can give way to more reasonable positions that would facilitate dialogue and confidence-building measures.

Looking at the standoff between China and Japan over history and disputed islands in the East China Sea, and that between South Korea and Japan over history and disputed islands in the Sea of Japan, there is an obvious need for inspired leadership to dial down the tensions and overcome the festering stalemates. But that’s not happening.

President Park Geun-hye, who squeaked out a narrow election victory in South Korea last December, has been hammering Japan on history ever since — a reliable crowd-pleaser throughout the Korean Peninsula. She’s also been arguing that it is pointless to meet Abe as long as he remains recalcitrant on history.

However, signs of that happening are not encouraging, as Abe is clinging to his airbrushed version and is now promoting a revision of government guidelines to eliminate what he regards as a “self-condemning” view of history in Japan’s school textbooks.

Abe believes history should help bolster patriotism, and thus favors removing the stains on Japan’s 20th-century past — but in doing so he risks not only dumbing down education, but also needlessly aggravating the neighbors and Washington. Moreover, Abe is subjecting Japan to international ridicule as he backtracks from a forthright reckoning in such a crude and unconvincing manner.

Clearly there are good reasons why Park believes that Abe’s best subject is not history. But perhaps Abe can learn from Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s political tailspin after stumbling badly on the issue of comfort women this past spring. It behooves him to understand the power of history to derail his quest to remake Japan.

Under the current circumstances, Park will have a tough time cutting a deal with Abe because she has to contend with the legacy of her father, Park Chung-hee, who was president from 1965 to 1979.

Problematically, Park — a former officer in the wartime Japanese Imperial military — signed the Treaty On Basic Relations in 1965 that normalized relations between Seoul and Tokyo. Most South Koreans believe that that agreement is too favorable to Japan, and they blame Park senior for being too soft on Japan. Thus his daughter is in a difficult situation, because meeting Abe could make her appear wobbly — and that might prove divisive.

Nonetheless, that is a risk she should take, because her hard-line approach has done little for South Korean national interests. She also has nothing to lose, since she need not make concessions about the past and could look like a canny stateswomen not afraid of making the best of a vexing situation. The rewards could be substantial.

In the view of some Japanese, whacking Abe with the past appears to be a cheap political ploy to embarrass Japan and rally support among Koreans, who tend to unify on only one issue: hating Japan.

But polls now show that Koreans want Park to get off her pulpit and have a summit. The visceral antagonism among Koreans toward Japan is not what it once was, and burgeoning ties in the 21st century have created a lot of goodwill that is reciprocated in Japan among ordinary citizens.

South Koreans understand just how important Japan remains for their economy, and business leaders worry that Park is risking way too much in trying to achieve something that is unlikely — Abe conceding he’s got it wrong. It’s time for her to pragmatically reach out, because she will find Abe is ready to do business.

Sometimes, being a leader means more than just being right — it can be about having a willingness to seize windows of opportunity. Japan’s China problems heighten Tokyo’s need to shore up relations with South Korea, and restoring dialogue offers more possibilities than mutual recriminations. Hence both sides have much to gain by working around their hard-line positions on history.

Park has advocated trustpolitik in dealing with Pyongyang, and a similar tact with Japan seems timely. Seoul can only enhance its dignity by being gracious on history — while Abe has a chance to bolster Japan’s dignity by making grand gestures of reconciliation.

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-06) has been trying to help Abe discover his inner leader, calling on him to terminate nuclear energy — but here too, that would mean Abe rethinking his longstanding position and his close ties with the nuclear village.

Undoubtedly, though, Abe could leave a lasting and inspiring legacy if he seized the opportunities presented on the history and energy fronts — but does he have what it takes as a leader?

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • IAF101

    If Abe terminates nuclear energy then it would only increase Japan’s energy insecurity and force Japan from a path of clean energy to a path of gas and coal fired power plants causing greater problems in the long run.

    Abe needs to address nuclear safety through rational and transparent mechanisms, not fall prey to reactionary and alarmist rhetoric on nuclear energy. Creating credible third party nuclear monitoring mechanism and regulatory institutions while upgrading existing nuclear plants to the more effecient and modern designs will not only add to the Japanese economy but also make Japan safer and improve its energy security.