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Nationalism Rises in Northeast Asia

The job-creating economies of the Northeast Asia Pacific region are the envy of the world. China, Japan and Korea – the world’s second, third and eleventh largest economies, respectively – are significant global economic powers. China, Japan and South Korea are major trade and investment partners, each thriving by embracing economic globalization. But because of historical differences and atrocities, the countries do not trust one another, explains international political economist Jean-Pierre Lehmann. “China, Japan and Korea individually and collectively through the supply chain greatly depend on the global market economy, while the global market economy greatly depends, and increasingly so, on the Northeast Asian economic powers individually and collectively,” Lehmann writes. Confucian values could account for respect for education as a driving economic force in the three nations. Yet nationalism is contributing to a decline in tourism and other cultural connections. Lehmann suggests that global governance could set a better example of confidence and cooperation. Conflict and hatred in that region can only lead to global economic havoc. – YaleGlobal

Nationalism Rises in Northeast Asia

Territorial fights menace prosperity in Japan, China, South Korea and global interdependence
Jean-Pierre Lehmann
YaleGlobal, 4 January 2013
Contest or cooperate? Lee Myung-bak, former South Korean president, ratcheted up pressure on Japan by visiting contested Dokdo island (top); Chinese and Japanese patrol waters near contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

SEOUL: Since the end of the 20th century Northeast Asia has emerged as a central force in globalization of the world. But the specter of rising nationalism in the area now threatens to undo the gains that global interdependence has brought to the region and to the world.

“The most important strategic choice the Chinese made was to embrace economic globalization rather than detach themselves from it,” wrote leading Chinese reformer and economist Zheng Bijian  in his seminal article for Foreign Affairs, “China’s Peaceful Rise,” in October 2005, a reference to the reform program launched in the late 1970s by Deng Xiaoping. The speed, intensity and breadth of that embrace have transformed the planet.

The first country in Northeast Asia that recognized the imperative of “embracing globalization” was Japan in the late 19th century. Detached in the 1930s, by the 1950s and 1960s Japan was reengaged with the global market economy, providing low-cost, high-quality goods and building up well-known global brands.

Then followed South Korea, which under military dictator Park Chung-hee, 1961 to 1979, embarked on a highly successful export-driven growth strategy. South Korea is the only sizeable developing nation to have risen from deep poverty to first world prosperity.

Today, China, Japan and Korea, respectively the world’s second, third and eleventh biggest economies, are significant global economic powers. Collectively they reflect one of the profoundest changes in the 21st century global economy: the emergence of global supply chains. The Apple iPhone, iPod or iPad may be American designs and brands assembled by a Taiwanese company in China, hence labeled “assembled in China,” but the devices also contain vital parts, components and technological knowhow from Korea, Japan and many other countries. Billions of consumers worldwide depend on and benefit from products emanating from the Northeast Asian–based supply-chain.

The specter of rising nationalism in the area now threatens to undo the gains that global interdependence has brought to the region.

Similarly, the economic growth of many countries, such as Australia, Mozambique and Peru, is driven primarily from supplying commodities to China, including for the manufacture of products in the supply chains.

China, Japan and Korea are one another’s major trade and investment partners. Japan has been engaged in outward foreign investments since the 1970s, Korea especially since the late 1990s and more recently China has launched what it calls its “going out” strategy. Thus millions of jobs globally are generated by internationalizing Northeast Asian firms. Similarly while Japan has been a significant source of overseas aid for developing countries for the last three decades, more recently South Korea has gone from being a recipient to a donor, while China since 2009 has provided more loans to Africa than the World Bank, and in Central and South America the China Development Bank has given more aid than the Inter-American Development Bank, the Andean regional bank and the World Bank combined.   

While the Chinese, Japanese and Korean economies differ in some respects, they also have strong resemblances. Clearly, industrializing Japan provided a “demonstration effect.” The Korean economic structure bears certain similarities with Japan, notably in, for example, the predominance of large conglomerates, with the Korean chaebol modeled on the Japanese zaibatsu, subsequently known as keiretsu. In launching the reforms in China in the late 1970s Deng urged his countrymen to “learn from Japan.” China, Japan and Korea are also Confucian societies, which scholars suggest accounts at least, in part, for the strong emphasis all three have given to education, widely believed to be a powerful driving force in the countries’ respective economic development.

While China, Japan and South Korea may have embraced economic globalization, they have emphatically not embraced one another.

China, Japan and Korea individually and collectively through the supply chain greatly depend on the global market economy, while the global market economy greatly depends, and increasingly so, on the Northeast Asian economic powers individually and collectively.

In that context there is a problem, indeed a cause for alarm. While China, Japan and South Korea may have embraced economic globalization, they have emphatically not embraced one another. Occasional attempts at patching old wounds up notwithstanding, the Northeast Asian powers display a tremendous lack of trust. This mistrust can generate what is at times profound hatred manifested in outbursts of violent nationalism and xenophobia.

For the Chinese and Koreans, the suspicions and nationalism are directed against Japan because of past actions for which it has not, they argue, atoned, and currently manifested in acute territorial disputes in the East China Sea. These disputes have escalated in recent months; alarm bells are ringing throughout much of East Asia, especially in respect to the Sino-Japanese confrontation. In reaction, strong anti-Chinese and anti-Korean nationalism has re-emerged in Japan, in good part driven by overt collective amnesia and negation about past atrocities. Recently elected Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, whose grandfather Kishi Nobusuke served in the wartime cabinet of Tojo Hideki, for example, denies, despite overwhelming evidence, that the Japanese engaged in sexual slavery during World War Two in Korea or elsewhere.

In South Korea there is the legacy of China’s role in the Korean War and support, even if ambivalent, of the regime in Pyongyang. Japan and Korea worry more about China’s future goals.

This anxiety, it must be stressed, is not a Northeast Asian monopoly. Countries in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, also worry about China’s apparent nationalist territorial expansion, and India looks upon China’s ambitions suspiciously. China’s “peaceful rise” would appear to be a distant, forlorn dream. Reality is more brutal and ugly. Nationalism is a powerful Chinese political force.

If the fuse goes off on the Northeast Asia powder keg, the consequences will be immediate, global and dramatic.

From the viewpoint of global economic interdependence, it is the three economic juggernauts and their collective impact on the global economy through the global supply chain that matters most. Today it must be recognized that while the embrace of globalization have generated great prosperity for all three countries – in stark contrast to North Korea which still rejects globalization and interdependence – by no means has it ensured trust, let alone peace.

While history does not repeat itself and comparisons are, by definition, odious, it is difficult not to draw parallels between Northeast Asia in the early 21st century and Europe in the first half of the 20th. It’s probably the case that if the economy  seriously deteriorated, as it did in the 1930s, that this would exacerbate nationalist tensions between the Northeast Asian powers, but it is not at all obvious that if the economic situation were to considerably improve, especially in Japan, that this would diffuse nationalist tensions. Economics alone, it seems, cannot trump emotions.

Whereas Chinese, Japanese and Korean tourists once flocked to one another’s countries, there has been recently a significant decrease in traffic. Furthermore, while the “pop-scene,” encompassing Canto-pop, Mando-pop, J-pop and K-pop, created an increasingly united Northeast Asian regional musical space, nationalist backlashes have also arisen; the Japanese NHK popular new year song festival has this year eliminated Korean singers. That is ominous.

As the forces of xenophobia are irrational, it is difficult to know what measures need to be taken beyond banal platitudes. Perhaps the first step is for the international community to recognize the perilousness of Northeast Asian geopolitics. If the fuse goes off on the Northeast Asia powder keg, the consequences will be immediate, global and dramatic. If, on the other hand, global governance would improve, so might governance in Northeast Asia.


Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor of international political economy, IMD, Switzerland; founder of The Evian Group; and visiting professor at Hong Kong University.The author will field readers' questions for a week after the publication date.

Rights:Copyright © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

21 January 2013
But may be The President of USA is being over excited as Korea is doing what any other ntiaon would want , balance of power ,its the right of the country & state itself what if people of any other country decide for USA? i am sure they will do the same (as in the past)& secondly it will enhance the hatred against the Americans & what i belive is Bush has done enough regarding the image of the ntiaon today for the other world so my conclusion is its just another tool to keep people diverted for another year or two,today i feel as blessed as any American cause the common people are always being played by the so called leaders of State.
-Asdahsdo , zfxBNOOhMqH
10 January 2013
Prof Lehmann,
Thank you very much for your time and trouble to read and reply to my comments.
Hirohito was an Anglo-Saxonphile; he had a great dislike of Japanese militarists and ultra-nationalists; he did not want Japan's war with China to escalate; he did not like the drift of Japanese foreign policy towads the Axis, etc. He showed a heroic courage in the summer of 1945 to bring Japan to defeat.
Prof. Edwin O. Reischauer said, when asked to comment upon the death of Hirohito in January, 1989 that he was probably the greatest emperor in Japanese history. I think it would have been nothing but heinous to prosecute him.
Mich Moriyama
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Unnan City, Japan
9 January 2013
As to your posting on nationalism and confucianism, thank you for all the detailed information. You mention Ian Buruma whose works I also considerably appreciate. His Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan is truly excellent. I do not think Japan's failure to atone for the atrocities and the prevalence of negationism among certain political leaders is due Confucianism or the absence thereof. While, as I pointed out in my previous posting, the Americans carried out a lot of rough victor's justice, but then failed to do was to prosecute the Emperor. Having absolved the Emperor from war guilt, in whose name the war was fought, implicitly all of Japan was absolved. That may be one of the principal reasons why moe than 65 years after the end of the war the debate continues.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann
-Jean-Pierre Lehmann , IMD
9 January 2013
thank-you Mr Moriyama. let me first respond to your comment on Kishi and Togo. My intention was not to condemn Kishi but simply to note the fact that he was Abe's grand-father. Abe's attitudes to the war and atrocities committed are ambivalent to say the least. In that context his lineage matters.
As to Togo, I am well aware of the story. There is absolutely no doubt that what was meted out in Japan by the Occupation was rough justice, or indeed victor's justice. There has been a recent book on the case of General Yamashita's execution (which I have not read yet), Allan A. RYAN (2012): Yamashita’s ghost. War crimes, MacArthur’s justice, and command accountability, which was perhaps the most flagrant example of victor's (rough) justice.
My main intention however is not to blame Kishi, Togo, or anyone else, but to insist that the continued ambivalence and amnesia of too many Japanese political leaders and others is highly reprehensible and so long as they persist there will be no peace in East Asia.
-Jean-Pierre Lehmann , IMD
7 January 2013
kish Nobusuke had a hand in the downfall of the Tojo cabinet in July, 1944. I do not say, though, that he was not ultlra-nationalistic, which he was.
Perhaps we cannot automatically condemn someone because he was a member of the Tojo cabinet. Shigenori Togo was a good case in point. He very strongly opposed Japan's entering the allinance with Germany. He aslo opposed the neutrality pact with the Soviet Union. Why he accepted the post of Foreign Minister in the Tojo cabinet was that Tojo wanted to make still more efforts, as he pledged at the behest of Hirohito, to eschew war with the United States, so he needed someone like Togo.
Togo made Tojo to promise that he (Tojo) would most sincerely do his best for this aim. Togo was also Foreign Minister in the Suzuki cabinet, which led Japan to surrender in August, 1945. Togo was one of the heroes to help Hirohito pursuade the opposing military to accept the defeat. He was brought to justice in the Tokyo International Tribunal. He was found guilty and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment; the reason was that he served as Foreign Minister in the cabinet which started the Pacific War.
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Unnan City, Japan
7 January 2013
Prime Ministers Hatoyam and Kan wanted and tried to distance Japan from the United States. They wanted to get very close to, and have amicable relations with, China. Kan was among those Japanese politicians who were disdainful of South Korea, taking a fancy to North Korea. There was much anti-American sentiment in their policy, which had been very charateristical with Japanese socialists and lefts in post-war Japan. This was leftist Japanese nationalism, but nobody seemed to say or worry about "Nationalism Rises" in Japan. Japanese mass media and intelligentsia have been soft on leftism.
Japan was and is not a Confucian society. This was one big reason why Japan alone, among these three countries, responded quite differently than China and Korea did in the middle of the 19th century to the challenge of modern Western imperialism.
Korea had been constatly under China's political pressure. It proselytised to Chu Hsi's (Zhu Zi's) metaphysical version of Confucianism in the Yi Dynasty (1393-1910). "The Koreans in the early Yi dynasty adopted Confucianism with such enthusiasm that their value system and social practices were restructured along Chinese lines more fully than ever before. Since Korea was a relatively small country, and a more manageable and homogeneous unit than the sprawling Chinese Empire, it may have become more uniformly and fully permeated by Confucian ideas than China was itself. In fact, Korean became in many ways an almost model Confucian society, and it came to show some of the strengths and also some of the weaknesses of Confucian polity in more extreme form than they appeared in China (J.K.Fairbank, E.O.Reischauer, A.M.Craig, East Asia:Tradition and Transformation.)" In passing, the Korean chaebol is not modeled on the Japanese keiretu. It comes from its Confucian culture or from its sense of blood ties, though perhaps chaebol and keiretus both have some affinities.
As Prof. Lehmann said, the Confucian countries have embraced economic globalization but have they embraced cultural globlization? The Japanese have historically thought bonnie things lie over the ocean; they looked to China for bonnie things; since 1868 it has looked tp the West for them.
A moral pecking order is an essence of Confucian society and Japan has been placed at its bottom in the Chinese and Korean thinking for centuries before the rise of Japanese imperialism.. One very strong characteristic with Confucian society is, as I said in my comments to Ian Buruma's article (below), that power politics is played in a moralistic terminology.
No matter what apologies Japan has made, no matter how repentant it has been, it is not absolved unless people stopped being political animalsIf interested in some more details, I should appreciate very much if you could read my comments to Asia's Nationalist Fantasy Islands by Ian Buruma.
Tojo became Prime Minister about fifty days before the Pearl Harbor attack. He could have done virtually nothing to alter the path Japan had been taking. What he should have been blamed for is his opposition as Minister of War (July, 1940 to October, 1941) to an immediate withdrawal of the Japanese Arm from mainland China. He had proposed that it would take two or three years while the United States insisted in the U.S.-Japan negotions that Japan pull out with a few months.
-Yoshimichi Moriyma , Unnan City, Japan