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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (December 8, 2003)

'Double expectations' in Asia

Weston S. Konishi (Senior Research and Program Officer, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation)

It does not take much for Japan to suffer a major setback in relations with its mainland neighbors. In late October, Japanese exchange students in Xian, China, thought they would get a good laugh if they donned lewd costumes at a university cultural festival. Instead, the audience erupted in fury, believing that the Japanese students had slighted their host nation. Mass demonstrations in Xian ensued and innocent Japanese were attacked. The violence subsided, but Chinese outrage toward Japan is rising.

The chain of events is now a familiar pattern for Japan, be it in relations with China or South Korea. Time and again, Japanese intentionally or unintentionally offend their Asian neighbors, stirring bitter historical animosities that undermine progress toward reconciliation. Unfortunately, these problems may well intensify, and not just because of continued gaffes on the Japanese side.

That point was apparent at a workshop project on Northeast Asia relations organized by my organization, the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, along with the Pacific Forum CSIS and the Asia Foundation. The project, held in September, gathered groups of intellectual leaders from Japan with counterparts from China and South Korea to examine historical problems and avenues for reconciliation.

The workshop discussions brought to light three factors that seem to be key impediments to regional relations. First is the notion of "double expectations," as one Chinese participant suggested. According to this idea, Chinese and Japanese expect each other to act and respond in the same way to various situations. When they do not, misunderstanding and conflict arise (witness the Xian incident), particularly over contentious historical issues.

The second factor is a general perception that Japan, China and South Korea do not share values that normally draw nations and allies together. There is, to be sure, a range of common interests held by all three nations, from business ties to environmental issues. Yet, as many of our participants suggested, there are major discrepancies in values such as human rights and democracy.

The third factor is the search for national identity. Participants in our project pointed out that a consensus on national identity remains elusive for their respective societies. Each nation therefore tends to compare itself with the other, emphasizing differences rather than similarities in order to define national characteristics. Nationalist leaders in all three countries take this practice to extreme levels, thereby exacerbating tensions.

The combination of factors--double expectations, differing values and competing national identities--have serious implications for regional cooperation on a range of emerging challenges, from North Korea's nuclear threat to the rise of China.

In fact, many challenges confronting the region may intensify differences between the three nations, even though close cooperation between Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul is increasingly critical to regional stability. The North Korean crisis is the most immediate concern, particularly in the context of South Korea-Japan relations. As our project participants noted, Japanese and South Korean views are diverging sharply over North Korea. On one hand, Japanese feel increasingly threatened by Pyongyang's nuclear development and intransigence on the abduction issue. On the other hand, many young South Koreans believe North Korea has nothing but peaceful intentions.

As the North Korean crisis drags on, Japanese and South Koreans once again appear to be at odds over values (whether or not North Korea is a threat) and expectations (what should be done about it). One participant in our project pointed out that, unlike in South Korea, most Japanese favor some form of "regime change" in Pyongyang and are suspicious of Seoul's attempts to engage North Korea.

The development of six-party talks on the North Korean crisis makes the potential for diverging expectations all the more likely. Seoul and Tokyo could easily clash over different approaches to North Korea. But there could be further complications if expectations of U.S. and Chinese positions are thrown into the mix.

In fact, China's rising influence presents a further challenge to long-term regional relations, particularly in the context of competing values and national identities. China, according to one of our participants, is facing "growing pains" as it seeks to define its principles and identity in the international arena.

China's quest is no doubt spurring a similar search for identity already taking place in South Korea and Japan. Unfortunately, all three nations are looking more outside than inside for answers, again comparing each other rather than taking a more introspective approach. The inevitable result is a starker sense of cultural and regional differences, such as Japan's belief in its "exceptionalism" from the wider Asian community.

The search for national identity could also lead to a further polarization of the region, as nations take sides with others that seem to have closer values. South Korean members of our project spoke of an ethnic and cultural affinity toward China, which a Japanese participant pointed out as a worrying sign that South Korea is gravitating toward China and away from the U.S.-led alliance structure in Asia.

South Korean participants, in turn, voiced apprehension that Japan and the United States are finding more and more in common of late--especially in light of current schism in the South Korea-U.S. relationship. The growing closeness in Japan-U.S. ties has, according to a South Korean participant, led some South Koreans to be envious of Tokyo's ability to "get what it wants from the United States" without alienating Washington.

The prospect of greater polarization in Northeast Asia makes the solution to regional problems seem beyond reach. Yet all may not be lost. Signs of progress in the region are often cited, from expanded economic interdependence to generational change. It is the latter development--the rise of a younger, postwar generation--that perhaps poses the best chance of leading the region toward reconciliation.

But the potential impact of the postwar generation in Asia remains uncertain at best. Will a younger generation of Chinese, Japanese and Koreans define their own national identity without further dividing the region? Will the values they emphasize be compatible with their neighbors? And will a new generation of leaders in Asia look beyond "double expectations" to better understand their peers?

The answers to these questions may be obscure, but the current debate is more forthcoming than ever. As one Japanese member of our group asserted: "We in Northeast Asia don't know each other very well. We think we know each other, but we must get to know each other better in order to proceed."

(This commentary first appeared in the Washington Japanwatch section of The Daily Yomiuri, December 4, 2003)

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