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The Politics of Identity: History, Nationalism, and the Prospect for Peace in Post-Cold War East Asia

Authored by Dr. Sheila Miyoshi Jager. | April 2007

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SUMMARY

The main source of regional instability and potential conflict in Northeast Asia consists of those factors to which most international relations theorists have paid the least attention, namely, issues of memory, identity, and nationalism. The potential for violent military clashes in the Taiwan Strait and the Korean peninsula largely involve disputes over history and territory, linked as they are to the unresolved legacies of the Cold War: a divided Korean peninsula and a divided China. The ?history disputes? that surround these divisions continue to be a source of instability for the region. The clash between an increasingly divergent national identity in China and in Taiwan represents a new challenge for U.S. policy on China. Moreover, it is reshaping the security environment in the Taiwan Strait in potentially destabilizing ways.

Similarly, the rise of pan-Korean nationalism in South Korea is problematic. Motivated by the desire of South Korea?s younger generation to seek reconciliation rather than confrontation with North Korea, it has led to severe strains in U.S.-South Korean relations as both Washington and Seoul attempt to resolve the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis. Linked to the rise of new and competing nationalisms in the region is China?s and South Korea?s suspicion of Japan and the rise of neonationalism in that country. U.S. mishandling of these regional tensions involving questions of identity and interpretations of history could plunge the entire region inadvertently into war and conflict.

This monograph reflects on how the United States might respond to the emerging nationalisms in the region in order to promote stability and peace. Breaking with both realist and liberal analysis, the monograph offers a constructivist approach which highlights the central role that memory, history, and identity play in the international relations of the area, with wide-ranging implications for U.S. foreign policy.

CONCLUSION

Both the Taiwan Strait and the Korean peninsula harbor very real dangers for the region. The combination of fundamentally irreconcilable nationalist movements in China and Taiwan, an unpredictable regime in North Korea that has succeeded in driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington, and lack of a unified strategy for dealing with a nuclear North Korea have created two highly combustible zones of potential conflict that could plunge the region into war. A nuclear North Korea may also prompt extensive new arms programs, possibly including nuclear weapons programs by Japan. It is hard to overstate the impact that Japan?s remilitarization could have on U.S. interests in Asia, and nowhere would this impact be greater than in China.77 A remilitarized Japan allied with the United States may well lead to an arms race in the region, setting the stage for dangerous confrontations. In supporting Japan?s remilitarization, the United States ought to consider the short-term marginal benefits in the light of likely long-term damage to East Asian peace and stability.78

As products of the unfinished Cold War, a divided China and a divided Korean peninsula have created the potential for violent military clashes in the region. The Cold War that ended in Europe did not end in East Asia, and as a result the history disputes that fuel tensions in the region continue to be sources of conflict and instability. U.S. policymakers should begin to focus their efforts on actively helping to resolve these historical issues. In concrete terms, this means that Washington should opt for strategic clarity with regard to its security guarantees to Taiwan by offering to defend Taiwanese democracy, but not its sovereignty. Washington should also work with Seoul, not against it, to engage Pyongyang, the ultimate goal being to end the Korean War. These steps will also require the United States to pay close attention to the historical debates that have fueled the region?s suspicion of Japan. Many observers have noted that Beijing has strong suspicions of U.S. efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance, particularly on Taiwan-related matters.79 In practical terms, this means that the United States must look beyond its immediate concerns with its war on terror and reassess the destabilizing impact that Japanese remilitarization could have on the region.

Although there is nothing inevitable about conflict in East Asia, there is the possibility that a North Korean or Taiwanese crisis could inadvertently spiral out of control, particularly if Washington fails to manage the competing nationalisms in the region. To that end, the United States should work with its allies in the region to overcome the unresolved legacies of East Asia?s Cold War?rather than inadvertently inflaming them.

ENDNOTES

77. The so-called ?apology decade? of the 1990s when Japan attempted to reconcile with its neighbors by offering direct apologies for the country?s misdeeds during the war, effectively came to an abrupt end with the rise of pressures affecting Japan?s new security concerns in Asia. Since then, more and more Japanese have begun to question the wisdom of the self-imposed constitutional restrictions on the military, particularly after North Korea?s 1998 Taepodong missile launching. Many Japanese now believe that Japan must become more resolute and assertive in defending its vital interests, and supported former Prime Minister?s Koizumi?s talk of constitutional reform and declared desire to see Japan become a ?normal? country. As regards supporting Japan?s remilitarization, the United States ought to consider the short-term marginal benefits in the light of likely longterm damage to East Asian peace and stability. Already a growing number of American and foreign diplomats and academics worry that increasing tensions between Japan, China, and South Korea will make it more difficult to find a regional solution to the North Korean nuclear issue. Further deterioration in these relations could also complicate U.S. relations with China and South Korea, which already are under stress. Moreover, because of security links between the United States and Japan and U.S. support of expanded Japanese military capabilities, increasing tensions between Tokyo and Beijing have the potential to worsen SinoAmerican relations, thereby increasing regional instability. Alan Dupont ?The Schizophrenic Superpower,? National Interest, Issue 79, Spring 2005, p. 2. For a good discussion of Japan?s so-called ?schizophrenic? nationalism, see J. Victor Koshmann, ?National Subjectivity and the Uses of Atonement in the Age of Recession,? The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 99, No. 4, Fall 2000. Also see Alexis Dudden, ?The End of Apology,? Japan Focus, accessed at www.japanfocus.org/products/details/1611.

78.Masaru Tamomoto, ?How Japan Imagines China and Sees Itself,? p. 14.

79.Japan has recently enacted two new controversial laws to enable the Self Defense Force (SDF) to assist U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under the second law, enacted in August 2003, Japan approved a plan to dispatch several hundred ground troops to Iraq at the end of that year. On December 9, 2004, the government also extended the SDF?s Iraq mission under the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Special Measures law, which had been enacted as a temporary one with a 2-year life span but since has been extended. In addition, Japan will introduce a U.S. missile defense (MD) system in 2007, and the two countries also have agreed on the development of a more advanced MD system, starting in fiscal year 2006, to counter missile threats from North Korea. Meanwhile, in February 2005, Japan joined the Bush administration in identifying security in the Taiwan Strait as a ?common strategic objective.? See Anthony Faiola, ?Japan to Join Policy on Taiwan,? Washington Post, February 18, 2005. See also Richard Boucher, ?Joint Statement of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee,? February 19, 2005, accessed at www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2005/42490.htm. For a good overview of the changing U.S.-Japan alliance, see Michael J. Green, ?U.S. Japanese Relations After Koizumi: Convergence or Cooling?? The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 4, Autumn 2006; and Aurelia George Mulgan, ?Beyond Self-Defense? Evaluating Japan?s Regional Security Role under the New Defense Cooperation Guidelines,? Pacifica Review, Vol. 12, No. 3, October 2000. See also Gavan McCormack, ?Remilitarizing Japan,? New Left Review, Vol. 29, September-October 2004.