POWERFUL nations on both sides of the Pacific are engrossed in pivotal elections or, in the case of China, critical selections.
U.S. voters will decide on Nov. 6 whether to retain the incumbent president. About the same time, communist elders will gather in Beijing to select a new party chief and president. Then, in December, South Korean voters will go to the polls to choose that country’s next president. Sometime this fall or winter, Japan’s ruling party may be forced to call a lower-house election to determine its fate.
One could be excused for enthusiastically greeting this electoral and selectoral ferment, a rare opportunity for ordinary citizens across the Asia-Pacific to help shape policy. The effect of the campaigns, however, has been more frightening than exhilarating. Territorial disputes have grown nasty.
Northeast Asia, the most economically dynamic region in the world, is now unstable. War between Japan and China, in particular, suddenly seems plausible. None of this bodes well for a trade-dependent state like Washington.
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In times of social unrest and economic anxiety, politicians often whip up nationalism to secure public support. They egg us on, braying for the home team and scapegoating other peoples, other countries. By sounding tough, candidates believe they will boost their chances of winning.
Sadly, they often are right; we tend to be suckers for flag-waving.
Consider the case of the Senkaku, also known as Diaoyu Islands, in the East China Sea, not far from Taiwan and just off Okinawa. They have been deserted since 1940, but both Japan and China claim them.
In September, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, hoping to rescue his party’s wobbly standing, decided to nationalize the islands — a hawkish move that triggered outrage in China.
The Chinese Communist Party, hoping to appear just as tough on the eve of its 18th party congress, not only tolerated street protests; it encouraged Chinese consumers to boycott Japanese goods and barred Chinese tourists from visiting Japan.
Then there is the conflict over Dokdo/Takeshima, a rocky outpost in the East Sea, also known as the Japan Sea, that is claimed by both South Korea and Japan. In August, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the island to show his nationalist bona fides. The Japanese government responded angrily to Lee’s unprecedented visit to Dokdo by withdrawing its ambassador from Seoul.
The territorial disputes are proxies for more fundamental conflicts over how to remember the past, namely Japan’s colonization of Korea in 1910, its occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and its invasion of China in 1937.
Despite growing interdependence among its economies, Northeast Asia is haunted by history; South Korea and China continue to press Japan for ever stronger expressions of contrition for its militaristic past.
With 70,000 troops in Japan and South Korea, the United States is a central actor in this region. And the presidential campaign in the U.S. is aggravating the already serious tension between the world’s leading superpowers. President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney are battling over who is tougher on China.
The administration recently filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization over Chinese subsidies to automobile and auto-parts manufacturers in China. Obama announced the action, which triggered a counter-complaint from China over U.S. duties on Chinese exports, while campaigning in Ohio, a swing state in the election.
This came after his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, called the president “a near supplicant to Beijing.” In the second presidential debate, Romney said he would label China a “currency manipulator” if elected.
In the long run, this region of the world needs deeper institutionalization — the pooling of national sovereignty, something like an Asian European Union — to facilitate greater cooperation and trust.
In the short run, windy nationalism is the very last thing it needs. This only fans the flames of conflict.
Walter Hatch is associate professor of government at Colby College in Maine. He used to be a reporter at The Seattle Times.