From territorial disputes in the East China Sea to heated propaganda wars across the region, peace in northeast Asia seems increasingly tenuous. At the heart of rising tensions are unresolved historical issues related to World War II, which drive a wedge between the United States’ two main allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, and fuel a revived rivalry between Japan and China. As the main victor in World War II, the United States has some responsibility for these disputes. It constructed the postwar regional order and has been largely content since then to view the matter as settled, even though issues of territory, compensation, and historical justice were left unresolved. During the Cold War, when the region’s main players were cut off from each other, the United States’ approach worked well. But as the region democratizes and grows increasingly integrated, long-buried issues are coming to the surface. As U.S. President Barack Obama heads to Japan and South Korea this month, it is time for the United States to tackle wartime history in Asia head on.
American officials were confronted by the uncomfortable realities of wartime issues last year, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, without warning, made an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including some who had been convicted and executed as Class-A war criminals. The Japanese leader certainly understood that his decision would irk China and South Korea, which see such visits as signals of Tokyo’s embrace of an unapologetic view of Japan’s wartime aggression. What was even more troubling was that the visit came only a few weeks after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden apparently received assurances from Abe that Tokyo would avoid any such provocations. Biden subsequently encouraged South Korean President Park Geun-hye to sit down with the Japanese leader, although Park questioned whether he could be trusted to hold his historical revisionism in check -- a concern that was clearly justified.
Japan and South Korea have made repeated efforts over the past two decades to resolve their wartime history issues, but progress has always proved short-lived. South Korean officials now openly plead for the United States to step in. That would be anathema to Japan, which fears being isolated. Obama managed to convene a brief meeting of the Japanese and South Korean leaders recently at the nuclear safety summit in Europe, but the agenda focused solely on North Korea. For its part, the United States simply urges restraint and dialogue, consistently refusing to intervene directly into disputes over the wartime past. American diplomats understandably argue that the subject is a minefield and that any U.S. involvement will be viewed with suspicion in China, Japan, and South Korea alike.
Even so, China’s bid for regional domination makes it nearly impossible for the United States to continue to stay out of the fray; Beijing has already started to position itself as sympathetic to South Korean fears about Japan and has embarked on a global propaganda campaign against Japanese “militarism,” pointing with undisguised glee at any evidence of Japanese nostalgia for its wartime past. By taking a leading role in dealing with the wartime past, the United States could make it difficult for Beijing to use it for political gain.
The first few paragraphs of this article have been reproduced with permission of Foreign Affairs. The complete version may be accessed on Foreign Affairs online.