At a recent conference organized by the Policy Alternatives Research Unit of the University of Tokyo, most participants shared the view that the state of relations in East Asia is unsettled and somewhat tense. This has many causes.

The most important is the shift of wealth, power and influence from the West to key players among the rest. The China-U.S. relationship is the most important geopolitical dynamic of our time. Its primary characteristic is strategic distrust based on competing long-term intentions, albeit alongside many shared interests such as maintaining the health of the global climate. Can Washington be persuaded to cede reasonable strategic space to Beijing?

China will vigorously contest any U.S. effort to assert indefinite dominance in East Asia, with potentially grave risks involved in such a clash of wills between the relatively rising and declining powers.

The strategic uncertainty also poses dilemmas for other countries on how far to accommodate China or seek to balance that with reinvesting in security links with the United States. A specific test of the impact of the changing China-U.S. relations on regional security is over how best to handle the threat of North Korea as a nuclear armed state.

Second, there are territorial disputes that could become flashpoints to armed conflict which no one wants, all would be damaged by, but whose escalation dynamics could prove unstoppable. Like the rising and expansionist Japan in the interwar period of the last century, a rising and increasingly more powerful China has been engaged in various probing maneuvers against several countries in the region, in the process testing not just their resolve but also the reliability and limits of their security links with Washington.

Gordon Chang also notes two other similarities from the 1930s: the belief that the ascendant power is surrounded by hostile enemies determined to thwart its rise, and loose civilian control of Asia’s biggest army. The sensible strategy would be to refer all territorial disputes to the World Court for adjudication, which would likely produce both losses and gains for most players. Unfortunately, history’s cross-roads are rarely marked by the choice of sensible paths to follow.

The final crucial cause of tension is that all countries still live in the shadow of the yet-to-be exorcised ghosts of Japan’s militaristic history, the persisting textbook controversies, and the self-defeating manner in which periodic expressions of remorse and apology for past aggressions and atrocities are undermined by the many more instances of qualifying and shuffling back from those expressions.

Little wonder that neighboring countries and friendly international observers remain confused and unconvinced about the sincerity, breadth and depth of Japan’s remorse and apology. It is hard to see how Japan can become a normal country — where, rather than carry grievances about its ugly past, neighbors focus on its present friendly and democratic identity even as constitutional restrictions on the development and possible overseas role of the military are lifted — until history’s ghosts are buried.

Against this backdrop, visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by the prime minister serve only to add highly combustible fuel to an already volatile situation.

Every country honors its war dead and no country would begrudge Japan doing the same. But enshrining the worst war criminals in Yasukuni made visiting it officially extremely problematical. Adding to the depth of the offense is the nearby Yushukan war museum which seems to support the revisionist view of the 1931-45 history and glorify Japan’s imperial rule.

The counterpart is Germany’s success in integrating into the post-1945 European order. In an image still considered an icon of historical reconciliation, on Dec. 7, 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt visited the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943 and, apparently spontaneously, dropped to his knees in silent reflection, penitence and atonement on behalf of Germans past and present.

Many were deeply moved by this profound gesture of apology by Brandt, and Germans and the victims of Nazi atrocities alike could begin the long process of healing and reconciliation that has stood the test of time. He was later to explain: “On the abyss of German history and carrying the burden of the millions who were murdered, I did what people do when words fail them.”

His successor as chancellor of united Germany, Gerhard Schroder, dedicating Willy Brandt Square in Warsaw on Dec. 6, 2000, said the gesture had become an eternal symbol of acknowledging the past and accepting the obligation flowing from it for reconciliation and a common future.

Is there scope for as dramatic, moving and memorable a gesture in East Asia today? Actually the Tokyo conference came up with proposals for two equally significant and momentous visits, one to Japan and the second by a Japanese.

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial commemorates the 250,000 to 300,000 Chinese who China claims were killed by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army in six weeks beginning Dec. 13, 1937. The memorial is very effective in conveying the reality and horror of the massacre and achieves an emotional impact comparable to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This has not prevented historical revisionists from claiming that the incident has been exaggerated or even fabricated to malign Japan. In a conversation there last August, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and I reflected on how a visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would be a game changer in Japan’s relations with all regional countries.

An apology delivered with sincere contrition and humility in Nanjing might even ease Abe’s goal of shifting Japan toward a “normal” country in foreign policy and defense. Neighbors worry about Japan’s potential for militarism because of its unconvincing efforts to shake off the ghosts of history.

If sufficiently reassured that Japan has come to terms with its past, the Yasukuni controversy will be permanently put to rest, and history textbooks will teach future generations the full and true story of Japan’s misdeeds in the 1930s and 1940s, all Southeast and East Asian neighbors could relax and focus on the radically different Japan of today.

But many Japanese were also victims of the war. No serving U.S. president has ever attended the commemorative ceremony in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. A formal U.S. apology would be too controversial and could inflame passions instead of facilitating reconciliation. However, President Barack Obama has eloquently articulated the vision of a world freed of the threat of nuclear weapons, most notably in Prague in 2009 and Berlin last June.

By visiting Nagasaki on Aug. 9, he could acknowledge the sufferings of the victims of the A-bomb and reaffirm the pledge: Never again must atomic weapons be used, anywhere.

Ramesh Thakur, a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at Australian National University, is the co-editor and co-author of “Reforming From the Top: A Leaders’ 20 Summit” (2005).

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