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Title The Suffocation of “the Regional Interest” in Northeast Asia Date 2014.03.06

Su-Hoon Lee

Attach 140305_NEA National and Regional Interests.docx
Despite the sweeping leadership changes in each of the major nation-states in Northeast Asia just over a year ago, the region and its states appear to be on a trajectory toward an inhospitable future.

In particular, the recent geopolitical upheavals portend structural instability for the region. Territorial and historical disputes stand out as enormous barriers to regional peace and stability. Hardliner governments currently serving in China, Japan, and South Korea are exacerbating already strained mutual relations. Today, each one’s responses and reactions to the other’s rhetoric and behavior seem rather mechanical and myopic -- a worrisome development indeed.

It was only a decade ago that substantial progress was made in the inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation, leading to an atmosphere of regional peace and movement toward regional integration, which inspired confidence that the two Koreas could avoid war in the future, and that the peoples of Northeast Asia could foster sustainable bonds and meaningful cooperation to build a regional community.

Sadly, this atmosphere has all but vanished, and the hope of building a regional community has dissipated. Today, there is little discourse on regional peace, community, and order.

Politics has played a large role in this turnaround. In 2013, the political climate of Northeast Asia was stormy, especially due to the increasing bellicosity surrounding existing territorial disputes among the actors in the region. The anxiety intensified when China announced its new “air defense identification zone” (ADIZ) in the East China Sea late last year, posing a new challenge to the dispute over sovereign airspace and to peace in the region’s skies and seas. Rising military budgets and changes in defense guidelines in China and, more recently, Japan, are alarming, as they in part reflect the sense of growing nationalism within the administrations. The leaders in the capitals of Northeast Asia seem to be busily seeking narrowly defined national interests. Past movement toward regional community building seems a mirage now, as concern for what might be in the “regional interest” has largely faded from the minds of leaders in Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo.

As a concept, regional interest sits on a higher plane than national interest. It is inclusive and win-win rather than exclusive and zero-sum. It is generated from the sharing of matching values such as cooperation, integration, and community. Where regional order is in harmony, virtuous cycles between national and regional interests can emerge and lead to peace and mutual prosperity. While not perfect, the European case demonstrates this point. The collective pursuit of common goals during good times and the sharing of pain during bad times could be considered the ideal for nations.

Regretfully, Northeast Asia appears caught in a downward spiral, as the pursuit of narrowly defined national interests continues to push the concern for regional interests to the sidelines. For example, recent comments and attempts at whitewashing of history by hardliners in Japan (including on the “comfort women” and “Yasukuni Shrine” issues) have intensified controversies and political tensions with China and South Korea.

Unfortunately, the conservative officialdom is not the only perpetrator of this downward trajectory. The general public has been influenced and gotten in on the act. In Japan, anti-Korean books appear to be selling like hot cakes. Incidents of discrimination against Korean students in Japan are surfacing in the news. South Korean students travelling to Japan for the purpose of protesting Prime Minister Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visit became involved in clashes with Tokyo Police. These and other events are vivid narratives that depict the trickledown effect the leaders’ decisions have had on the public, eroding the foundation for pursuing the common good for the region’s peoples through integration and regional community building. Students in Northeast Asia should be enjoying various aspects of the common goods as their counterparts do in the EU. Instead they seem embroiled in the growing nationalism, taking their protests abroad. Their welfare and the people’s welfare have been put on the backburner. The growing nationalism is contributing to the decline in tourism and other cultural connections, undermining the opportunities for Japanese, Chinese, and South Koreans to freely interact and engage in meaningful, positive exchanges that promote peace and understanding.

In Northeast Asian cultures, the weight of the leader’s role is tremendous. Despite democracy’s recent advancement, this convention still prevails. The perceptions of ruling politicians and leaders are also both powerful and immensely influential in society. Current perceptions appear reactionary and self-centered. While claiming to work in the national interest and for public welfare, their actions have been dubious, done for political means toward political ends. In some respects, we are constrained by the political motivations of the current leaderships.

A seismic shift is looming in Northeast Asia that may very well lead to a type of “disorder” in each state. If this happens, political leaders could succumb to the temptation to “straighten out the country,” couching their calls for and courses of action behind a “sense of calling” doctrine. However, this type of “calling” is likely to exacerbate frictions and be in discord with the universal trend toward expanding the common goods. History well demonstrates that greater sensitivity, attention, and a commitment to diplomacy are required during times of growing instability.

The linchpin of the region’s future is regional integration. The direction of each country’s leadership should focus on the regional interest. The true pursuit of national interest can be realized through the seeking of measures to promote and increase the interests of the region and its residents.