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Geopolitics Lurks in the Sidelines at 2014 Asian Games Event
Bronze medalist Japanese team members at the medal ceremony of the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon on September 22, 2014. (INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)

Geopolitics Lurks in the Sidelines at 2014 Asian Games Event

John Lee

The 17th Asian Games taking place over this fortnight in Incheon, Republic of Korea seems a friendly affair if the official slogan for the meet, “Diversity Shines Here,” is anything to go by. While South Korea is seeking to extend its dominance over Japan on the final standings, Japanese officials have admitted that making ground on the final medal tally against the ROK, which has pipped Japan for second behind China, at the last four Games is their top priority.

Rivalries do not exist simply because both countries are fighting it out for second place. This sporting one has a more serious edge to it and takes place within an environment where the political relations between Seoul and Tokyo are at a generational low over issues such as the Japanese use of Koreans as ‘comfort women’ during World War Two. The ROK believes Japan has not apologized sincerely and deeply enough, while the Japanese insist that Seoul alters the standard of what constitutes an acceptable apology for domestic political gain. The problem for the ROK is that even though it feels justified in allowing wartime issues to dominate all political interaction with Japan, doing so is increasingly detrimental to Seoul’s strategic interest and diplomatic standing.

Let’s first deal with the strategic cost for the ROK. The problem for Seoul is that the region (with the exception of China and North Korea) is increasingly enthusiastic about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Japan playing a more proactive strategic and military role in the region. After all, the U.S.-Japan alliance is the pillar of the American-led strategic order cobbled together after World War Two. Japan’s underestimated military strength and the political will to use it under threatening circumstances, is essential for maintaining a favorable balance of power in Asia. As China rises, America and Asia will need Japan to accept more of the security burden to continue to underwrite an order that has produced prosperity for regional economies over seven decades.

In this light, Seoul’s persistence in using wartime history to argue against the desirability of a more pro-active Japan pits the ROK against the strategic preferences of countries that also suffered from the yoke of Japanese imperialism during the war such as Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia – all joining the U.S., Vietnam and India in welcoming a more “can-do” and “will-do” Japan in Asia.

But more than being isolated on this issue, eroding enthusiasm for a more assertive Japan clearly runs against the ROK’s own strategic interest. Take the issue of Japan reinterpreting its own Constitution to allow “collective self-defense”: coming to the aid of allies to preemptively protect Japanese interests. The move by Japanese Prime Minister Abe was not received well by Seoul. Yet, if North Korea were to make good on its threat to invade the South, American forces would need Japanese bases and military assets to repel Pyongyang’s troops. If Japanese collective self-defense were prohibited, the ROK would remain far more vulnerable to invasion than it otherwise is. Without the Constitutional reinterpretation to allow “collective self-defense,” Japan would be prohibited from helping the U.S. come to the aid of the ROK. The bottom-line is that a permanently cowed and introverted Japan — overly burdened by the guilt of its war-time conduct overly seventy years ago — is not in the region’s or the ROK’s interest.

This brings us to the issue of Seoul’s political and diplomatic standing should the disagreements over history worsen. Bad memories of imperial Japan still exist in many parts of Asia and the ROK (and China) keeping wartime issues alive are embarrassing and troubling for Tokyo. Yet, a July 2013 Pew Survey is instructive. Around 80 percent of populations from Southeast countries that suffered at Japanese hands during World War Two such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia viewed Abe’s Japan favorably — no doubt reassured by a post-war Japan that has been a “model international citizen” for well over seven decades. No doubt, Japan’s immense contributions to offering aid, capital, technology and opening its vast market to the region has helped to sooth memories. In contrast, 77 percent of surveyed populations in the ROK joined the 90 percent of Chinese surveyed who viewed Japan unfavorably.

The point is that the region clearly wants to move on from the past as the great challenge now and into the future is how best to coax or else coerce China into becoming a satisfied, constructive and non-threatening great power in the region. A confident Japan has to play an essential role in this project. As a result, many capitals and their populations will grow increasingly tired of countries focusing on past grievances, driving wedges between what ought to be strategic allies and partners which is to China’s advantage.

This brings us back to the Asian Games in Incheon which is the ROK’s chance to show-off to the region. As a political-economy and society, South Korea like Japan is a superb illustration of what we hope China will look like in the decades ahead. But to be a leader in what many are predicting as the Asian Century, it needs to find a way to forgive past slights, secure common interests, and look to the future.

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