Has World War II ended in the Pacific theater?
That might seem a silly question in a year when the leaders of Japan and South Korea are coming, separately, to Washington in part to mark the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ victory in Asia.
But they’re coming at a time when tensions between Japan and Korea are “as high as they’ve ever been” in the past half-century, as Asia scholar Michael Auslin said recently.
“I’m not sure how the situation can get much worse,” agreed Kurt Campbell, the State Department’s top Asia official during President Obama’s first term. “The totality of it is enormously harmful to both countries, but more importantly . . . this is harmful to the United States.”
“We can’t pivot to Asia if we don’t have Japan and Korea with us,” concurred Victor Cha, a senior White House official for Asia policy under President George W. Bush. “And the relationship’s become such that it’s difficult to do that.”
All of which prompted scholar Nicholas Eberstadt, speaking at the same American Enterprise Institute panel as the others last month, to pose this question: “How can you tell whether you’re in an interwar period or in a postwar period?”
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Eberstadt noted, courageous leaders in Europe helped put historical questions to rest and bind France, Germany and eventually the entire continent, first in a common market for steel, eventually in NATO and the European Union.
In Northeast Asia, there are no such structures, for security or economics. There are still two Koreas and two Chinas. Japan has territorial disputes with China, Korea and Russia. Koreans and Chinese, or at least their governments, seem angrier at Japan today over its behavior before and during the war than they were a generation ago.
You can see the contrast, Campbell said, in the two theaters’ battlefields: In Europe, “manicured cemeteries . . . cultivated in a way to remind everyone about how things had been put in an appropriate historical context.
“If you go to any of the battlefields in Asia, in Peleliu or any of the islands, it’s like they’ve stopped fighting and just dropped their equipment,” Campbell said. “It’s like it’s still with us.”
That’s not to suggest that Asian nations are about to go to war. But it’s striking that Japanese officials have to point out as a significant accomplishment when their prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, shake hands, as they did at a state funeral in Singapore a few days ago.
Abe, who will visit Washington this month, and Park, expected in June, would seem well-suited to improve bilateral relations. Both are conservatives, committed to a strong U.S. alliance.
Yet Park has shown more openness to meeting with Communist leaders in China or, possibly, North Korea than with Abe. What’s going on?
To some extent, they may be prisoners of their pasts. Abe’s grandfather was a wartime leader and postwar prime minister. That may make him reluctant to condemn Japan’s war record as full-throatedly as Korea and China demand.
Park’s father served in Japan’s colonial army, became president of South Korea and, in 1965, signed a normalization treaty with Japan that many Koreans came to see as too lenient on reparations. That may make her reluctant to open herself to criticism that she is “soft” on Japan.
These personal stories reinforce a dysfunctional dynamic in which Japanese feel that they get no credit for apologies already rendered, while Koreans question the sincerity of those apologies and demand more.
As is often the case with such disputes, though, the historical arguments between Japan and Korea are in part a proxy for anxieties about the future, as both nations worry that China is eclipsing America.
Both Japan and Korea depend on trade and investment with China, while counting on the United States to provide a security counterbalance. But both have noted nervously as the United States shrinks its Navy and President Obama says it is time for “nation-building at home.” Asian allies watched with anxiety as Syria crossed Obama’s red line and Russia defied the West in Ukraine.
As it happens, Obama also has fashioned what could be the best antidote to this anxiety, if Congress, hesitant so far, will endorse it: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal that would include Japan — and that South Korea would quickly seek to join, if it becomes real. The TPP, which also includes Canada, Mexico and Vietnam, could begin to provide the kind of structure that Asia lacks — and that long-term stability is built on. It might even help bring World War II to a close.