Asia’s democracies need to get their acts together to address a common danger from the region’s authoritarian/totalitarian powers. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan face rising challenges from China and/or North Korea. All have security arrangements with the United States to deter or confront those threats.
Yet territorial claims and historical grievances frequently align those democratic states more with China’s positions than with each other’s, producing the paradoxical perception among them that the ally of my ally is my adversary. While American presidential candidates were vowing to get tough with China, Asian politicians pledged to stand up to their freedom-loving neighbors.
China is happy to stoke the divisions among America’s friends and allies, constraining U.S. diplomacy and complicating its regional security planning.
China and Taiwan vs. Japan: Japan controls the Senkaku Islands (claimed as the Diaoyu by China and the Diaoyutai by Taiwan). Washington takes no position on the merits of the three countries’ claims but includes the islands under the U.S.-Japan security umbrella. China sees that as provocative U.S. meddling on Japan’s side of the dispute.
In August, Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, proposed an East China Sea Peace Initiative involving trilateral negotiations, shared resources, and a seagoing code of conduct. China is willing to share resources, at least initially, but unwilling to treat Taiwan as an equal negotiating partner rather than as a province of China.
Recent maritime and air clashes pitted Chinese and Taiwanese craft against Japanese ships and planes. American officials have expressed concern that Taipei might join Beijing in a united front against its treaty ally Japan. Taiwan has assured the United States it will not.
China and Taiwan vs. South-east Asia: In the South China Sea, Beijing and Taipei assert identical sweeping claims, encompassing virtually the entire area, against the interests of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. China takes a far more aggressive approach than Taiwan, rejecting multilateral negotiations through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and a regional code of conduct. Taiwan favors both, along with most countries in the region and the United States.
Still, like China, Taiwan has not laid out the specific land features that underlie its maritime claims, as required by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Taipei could boost its credentials as a responsible international stakeholder by adopting the UNCLOS methodology and distinguishing itself from Beijing’s bullying approach—a Chinese official, suggesting might makes right, warned ASEAN representatives: “You are small and China is big.”
China and South Korea vs. Japan: Even more inflammatory than specific territorial and sovereignty issues are the lingering legacies of Japan’s conduct during the 1930s and 1940s. Japanese apologies and compensation payments never satisfy China or South Korea. Beijing deliberately keeps nationalist resentment smoldering as a substitute for domestic political legitimacy and a tactic to keep Tokyo on the defensive. Since China’s Communist government killed millions more Chinese than Imperial Japan did, Beijing’s constant finger-pointing at democratic Japan reeks of cynicism and hypocrisy.
As for South Korea’s grievances, all of Japan’s good words and good works are undermined by Tokyo’s grudging acknowledgment of the “comfort women” outrage, when tens of thousands of South Korean and other Asian women were used as sex slaves by Japan’s military in WWII. The skewed history presented at the Yasukuni war museum and in textbooks provides added ammunition for those who wish to argue that Japan, a model international citizen, has not truly come to grips with its past. Democratic Japan needs to preserve its moral superiority over both the last century’s Japan and today’s China.
For its part, Japan challenges South Korea’s possession of the Dokdo/Takeshima islets near the Korean Peninsula. But in virtually all the other regional confrontations, China is the common element. It backs its claims with growing military power, and the apparent willingness to use it. It also protects and enables North Korea’s reckless and illegal nuclear/missile programs, which simultaneously threaten Japan, South Korea, and the United States.
Given those real and present dangers, countries in the region no longer have the luxury of relitigating dead history. Asia’s democracies would do well to match America’s rebalancing to Asia by their own pivot away from narrow nationalism to their broader Asian security interests. Americans, Filipinos, and other Southeast Asians have left the bitter past safely behind them. Other countries in the region need to do the same.
The Philippines’ foreign minister recently called on Japan to bolster its military capabilities to counter China’s aggressive rise. He knows the difference between Imperial Japan, democratic Japan, and the People’s Republic of China—and which poses the real, present threat to regional peace and stability.
Despite the recriminatory tone of the recent elections in South Korea and Japan, both countries chose leaders who welcome strong security ties with the United States. Wise and persistent U.S. leadership can help Asia’s democracies accept the strategic logic that says the ally of my ally is also my ally.
Joseph A. Bosco is a national security consultant. He was China desk officer in the office of the secretary of defense
from 2005 to 2006.