It’s not a perfect analogy, but imagine a militarily powerful Canada, America’s largest trading partner and neighbor, erecting a memorial to John Wilkes Booth. That’s more or less what China did last week, when it unveiled an exhibit and memorial to the Korean independence activist who assassinated Japan’s first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito, in 1909. A century after the fact, these are usually things that nations try to put behind them. Not in East Asia, where insult after insult is lobbed back and forth across the East China and Yellow Seas among Japan, South Korea, and China. It’s almost as if these nations were trying to convince themselves to fight.
This is a particularly complex issue. In 1909, Korea had been a protectorate of Japan for four years since Tokyo’s victory over Russia in 1905. Ito, the man most responsible for modernizing Japan after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, was Japan’s top official in Korea at the time. While visiting Harbin, in northeastern China, to negotiate with Russian representatives, Ito was shot to death at the city’s railway station by Ahn Jung-geun. Ahn, whose name is known to every Korean schoolchild, was executed by the Japanese the following year, and history has portrayed the killing as part of the impetus for Japan to formally annex Korea as a colony in 1910.
It is at the Harbin railway station, where the assassination occurred, that the Chinese opened the memorial to Ahn. In fact, the memorial is a joint South Korean–Chinese project, yet another indication of a growing closeness between Seoul and Beijing. Not surprisingly, Tokyo issued a strong denunciation of the memorial, calling Ahn a terrorist and saying the move does not contribute to peace and stability in Asia.
From one perspective, Monday’s news shows that Japan is increasingly isolated under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His visit to Yasukuni Shrine, where World War II war criminals are enshrined, was received as a gratuitous insult by the Chinese and Koreans. Korea’s president Park has announced plans to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping this year, while still refusing to talk with Abe. China continues to pressure Japan over the Senkaku Islands, and just last week, Chinese patrol vessels again entered the island’s waters.
Yet a more disturbing interpretation is that the nations of East Asia, all of which are economic powerhouses and two of which are U.S. allies, are committed to a game of geopolitical chicken. How far will they go to scrape at old historical wounds? How much nationalism and resentment are each willing to whip up? Most important, for what end are they all doing this? Do they simply not understand the passions with which they are playing, or do they know exactly what they are doing and are willing to risk outright conflict over century-old history or a group of uninhabitable islands?
Washington is smack in the middle of this, thanks to our relations with all three and our defense alliances with Tokyo and Seoul. Last week, Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, gave a speech in which he said that the U.S. is losing its uncontested control of the Pacific. China’s military rise may or may not be benign in intent, but its increasingly coercive actions can only be construed as destabilizing. The fact that our two closest allies in East Asia won’t even talk to each other makes it increasingly difficult to plan coherently to respond to crises. It also raises questions about the pressure that a Beijing-Seoul axis might try to bring on Washington to further isolate Japan.
For all the talk of how today does or does not represent 1914 and the run-up to World War I, the gamesmanship in East Asia is unquestionably leading to a more dangerous tomorrow.