Editorial page editor, 2000-2021

You can see the danger signs from Richmond, Va., to Harbin, Manchuria: The major powers of East Asia are increasingly angry with each other. That could bring trouble to the region and, while we’re not paying much attention, to the United States, too.

The skirmish at the Virginia General Assembly might seem comical to most Americans. Trying to please their Korean-American voters, Northern Virginia legislators introduced a bill requiring Virginia textbooks to note that the Sea of Japan is also known as the East Sea. Japan’s government is lobbying to kill the measure.

Honestly, you might say, who cares?

But like many long-standing disputes, the argument over place names has taken on new urgency in the context of China’s rise, Japan’s resurgence and uncertainties in the region about the United States’ staying power.

Bitterness spilled out a few days ago when China opened a “memorial hall” — really a small museum — honoring a Korean activist at the Harbin railway station where, in 1909, he assassinated a former Japanese prime minister.

A Japanese official denounced China for glorifying a “terrorist.” A South Korean politician responded, “If Ahn Jung-geun was a terrorist, then Japan was a terrorist state for having mercilessly invaded and plundered countries around it.”

The opposing views of history aren’t new. Korea, which was annexed by Japan shortly after the assassination, years ago put Ahn on a 200-won postage stamp. The assassinated prime minister, Hirobumi Ito, adorned Japan’s 1,000-yen notes. Korea has long urged China to establish a memorial on the site of the killing.

What’s changed is China’s attitude. After years of politely rebuffing the Korean request, the Chinese government apparently decided it had little to lose in further souring relations with Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month made a similar calculation when he visited the shrine to Japan’s World War 11 dead, including its war criminals, knowing the visit would inflame both China and Korea.

“The competition for leadership in Asia is alive and intensifying,” former State Department official Dan Twining recently wrote in Foreign Policy. With roughly $8 trillion in annual output, China has surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. But Japan, at about $6 trillion, is not far behind, and Abe has made clear he does not believe it should cede technological, military or economic primacy to China. (U.S. output is about twice China’s.)

Earlier this month, Abe and China’s foreign minister toured Africa almost simultaneously. In an implicit slap at China, the Japanese leader said, “it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave. We don’t want to see a new co­lo­ni­al­ism.”

China’s ambassador to Ethi­o­pia retorted, “Abe has become the biggest troublemaker in Asia.”

The most perilous flashpoint is a pile of rocks in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan, which calls them the Senkakus, and claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyus. This one is more than an argument over names — fisheries and offshore oil are in play — and it could flare into something very nasty, including for the United States.

Imagine, for example, that a Chinese fishing boat defies the Japanese coast guard and puts in at one of the uninhabited islands. The Japanese take custody of the crew; the Chinese demand their release; shots are fired; Japan invokes the U.S.-Japan security treaty. The resulting choice — face off against China or abandon an ally — is one that no president wants to confront.

For the United States, it’s a classic challenge of alliance management: be firm enough to deter any aggression by a potential foe without being so unequivocal as to encourage reckless behavior by an ally.

In this case, the best way to walk that fine line is to be more, not less, present in the region. If the nations of East and Southeast Asia know they can count on a U.S. presence, they are more likely to band together to quietly resist Chinese bullying. Neighboring countries are less likely to worry about the Japanese military modernization, which the United States favors. Japan is likelier to respond with forbearance to Chinese provocations, and China and Korea are likelier to defuse their tensions.

Such calculations were behind a policy, articulated during Obama’s first term by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her assistant secretary for Asia Kurt Campbell, of a U.S. pivot to Asia. Unfortunately, many Asian officials now seem unsure how real that pivot is. They see the U.S. defense budget cut while China’s grows, a second-term foreign policy team focused on other regions, a mood of withdrawal in the U.S. capital. Their inclination is to hedge their bets — to plan for a world with diminished U.S. leadership.

In such a world, fights over what to call the body of water between Korea and Japan would be the least of our worries.

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