America’s new Asia policy (pivot, rebalance, refocus, you name it) is, Via Meadia thinks, the right thing to do, but much of the country — including, alas, much of the MSM — doesn’t get how complicated and dangerous a place Asia is. For decades US press coverage and the public discourse of our national leadership has provided only the most superficial analysis of this part of the world.Asia is a much tougher neighborhood than post World War Two Europe, and the kind of old fashioned nationalism that was mostly burned out of Europe by the world wars is alive and well in all three Asian regions that our new strategy points toward. In East, South and Southeast Asia, nationalism still burns with all the passion and, sometimes, rage that marked Europe’s history through 1945.America’s new strategy puts us right in the middle of these rival nationalist passions, and our ability to work with and around them will well go a long way to determining just how peaceful the Pacific Century turns out to be. It isn’t going to be easy. Take this Chosunilbo column from Kim Dae-joong, one of South Korea’s best known pundits, as an indication of the forces and the passions in the region.
Why does Seoul continue to adhere to what looks like an increasingly outdated peace and denuclearization policy? The goal of denuclearization in Northeast Asia has become unattainable. North Korea is not going to abandon its nuclear weapons even at the cost of its own collapse, since the regime saw clearly what happened to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi when he gave them up.Japan has turned the nuclear crisis into an opportunity. China’s military might is increasing every day, and the re-election of the hawkish Vladimir Putin as Russia’s new president has apparently prompted Japan to gear itself up for potential increases in military conflicts and diplomatic friction in Northeast Asia. This has resulted in Tokyo taking necessary steps so it could arm itself with nuclear weapons if the need arises. North Korea will undoubtedly use that development as an excuse to spur its own nuclear arms program.The U.S. seems either to implicitly side with or even support Japan. When it was revealed that Japan had revised its nuclear law, South Korea and China expressed serious concern, but Washington did not appear too concerned.
Kim is a hardliner – this is not the first time he has called for the South to acquire nuclear weapons – and his views do not reflect the prevailing wisdom in Seoul. But Kim is one of the country’s most prominent columnists writing in the country’s most popular newspaper.More broadly, managing our new Asia policy requires working with some of the testiest countries in the world. South Korea and Japan have a particularly prickly relationship. Their common concerns about the rise of China and the threat of North Korea give Tokyo and Seoul much to talk about, but relations between Japan and South Korea are still troubled by the bitter history of Japanese rule in Korea in the first half of the twentieth century. Recently, relations between the two countries have been getting worse.Recently, nationalists have been gaining ground in both Korean and Japanese politics, partly in response to what is seen as provocative and dangerous behavior from both China and North Korea. But nationalism in South Korea is usually associated with anti-Japan feeling — and this is not helped by signs that Japan’s concerns over nuclear North Korea are causing it to edge cautiously and in a typically Japanese indirect and measured way toward a nuclear arsenal of its own.The new emphasis on Asia in American grand strategy is going to require Americans to spend more time learning and thinking about the history of the region and the political cultures that shape the thinking of the people and politicians of this part of the world. This kind of knowledge used to be the preserve of a relatively small number of professional specialists who tracked Asia closely; these days, that specialist knowledge must enter the mainstream.