The Real Dividing Line in the East China Sea

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Staff Editor

There are two conflicting narratives that describe the current territorial standoff in the East China Sea. One favors China and isolates Japan. The other, which makes China the odd man out, has been all but ignored by those it would so clearly benefit.

According to the first narrative, which Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe needlessly reinforced by visiting the controversial Yasukuni shrine last month, the territorial dispute pits an unreformed, imperialist Japan against the victims of its historical abuses: South Korea, China, and Taiwan. For Beijing especially, Japan and its American ally are the sclerotic, backward representatives of colonial forces that kept China weak for over a century, until the heroic Communist Party took power in 1949 and began to rebuild the country’s dignity. The Communist leadership’s aggressive moves in the East China Sea are thus depicted as reasonable steps in China’s gradual return to its rightful place as the dominant state in the region.

More broadly, the first narrative portrays the players involved as historically rooted nations with continuous interests, rivalries, and fortunes that rise and fall over the centuries, regardless of drastic changes to borders, regimes, societies, and ideologies. In this view, the Chinese Communist Party is the heir of imperial China, modern Japan is indistinguishable from imperial Japan, South Korea has more in common with the North than with its former colonial master, and Taipei is in lockstep with Beijing when it comes to “Chinese territory.”

By contrast, the second narrative focuses on the huge gulf between the vibrant democracies of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan on the one hand, and authoritarian China and North Korea on the other. It is this crucial frontier, between despotism and freedom, that forms the basis of America’s military alliances in Northeast Asia. Beijing has an unmistakable interest in evoking pre-1945 history and obscuring both the Cold War decades and present-day realities, but the conservative governments that currently rule in the region’s democracies appear oblivious to the danger of playing along.

Abe in particular seems unable to perceive the trap. He is reportedly determined to abandon Japan’s rigid postwar pacifism, which is probably wise given the growing Chinese threat, but for him this means revising history and restoring pride in wartime Japan. He ignores the possibility of a third option: a robust foreign policy based on the defense and promotion of democracy in the region and around the world.

For decades, Japan’s foreign policy has been largely limited to improving trade ties and offering development aid that indirectly benefits Japanese industries. Given the old regime’s transgressions, Tokyo has typically shied away from building on its shared interests with other democracies, encouraging political reforms in developing countries, or projecting military force to help resolve distant international crises. But a vigorous rejection of the pre-1945 system and a demonstrated commitment to democracy as a universal human right would give Japan the credibility it needs to maintain its existing alliances, win wider support in its disputes with authoritarian China, and gain regional (as well as domestic) acceptance of stronger Japanese defense forces. Such a policy could also help make Japan a friend rather than a foe to ordinary Chinese citizens.

Abe’s visit to Yasukuni and other revisionist gestures are flatly incompatible with those goals. In fact, such self-inflicted wounds could ultimately weaken the U.S. alliance. America will always have an interest in checking authoritarian aggression and protecting fellow democracies, but it would be very difficult to ask U.S. sailors to risk their lives in defense of a government that honors the authors of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

To ensure its future safety, Japan must make a new approach to the world, not as an ashamed convict or an unrepentant rogue, but as an established democracy ready to acknowledge the sins of the former regime and redeem them by standing up against contemporary threats to freedom in all countries.

Photo Description: Senkaku Islands
Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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