Economists, political scientists, and sociologists greeted developments at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s with acclamation that their theoretical views were proven correct and those of marginalized social scientists and area specialists were now disposable. Communism in all its assaults on freedom was passe, as were Sovietologists and those who had concentrated on “Maoist China.” The Cold War was a unique era left to historians, cutting adrift those who were known for studies of such obsolete topics as the “balance of power.” Historical memories centering on changing the verdict about wars, humiliations, and civilizations were being replaced by joint pursuit of future-oriented endeavors. Area experts on political forces caught in a time warp would soon be dispensable. What the academic world needed was the extension of theories to show the path to globalization, whether for economic prosperity spreading to new corners or for non-traditional forms of security posing unprecedented threats, and, at last, this was within reach. A quarter century later, especially in countries pressing to redraw the map of Asia, the mood unmistakably is changing through the rising pull of historical memories, as they reshape national identities and refocus bilateral relations, amplified through contending symbols of how the past matters to a degree that jeopardizes economic and security relations. History has become an indispensable part of international relations analysis, and theories that keep overlooking it appear increasingly out of touch with East Asia.
In this Special Forum we turn to authors who have recently written about one or another legacy in Northeast Asia for their assessment of how history is influencing international relations. A quarter century after many assumed the “end of history” or something akin to it, we ask why and how has history revived with such fervor and so dramatically impacted a region, which a decade ago seemed poised for an unrivalled ascent to shared prosperity, appeared confident that joint security was guaranteed apart from the pariah North Korean state, and had begun the process of constructing collectively an East Asian community in which value conflicts would be unproblematic, in line with the way ASEAN had effectively managed such divisions. We do not dwell on the specific historical themes that have attracted much attention of late. Rather, we look back to the period ending in the 1980s for insights into what would resurface as obsessive themes in the 2010s and at the 1990s-2000s for how they managed to regain traction. We focus on the process of history’s resurgence. We also cover current regional challenges for which echoes of past thinking lately have proved consequential, as authors search for the political basis for this revival.
There is no mistaking the new potency of historical memories in China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia. For the United States, which disclaims any role of history in its foreign policy, this is a perplexing environment. North Korea undoubtedly is at the top of the list, obsessed with its own perspective on history. The Chinese and South Koreans charge that Japanese leaders are now provoking historical memories with outrageous justifications of wartime conduct long condemned by the international community. Japanese, in turn, insist that the leaders and the media in both of those countries are deliberately playing the “history card” because of their own political obsessions. Lately, Russia has also joined the fray, revisiting this region through its historical prism with commentaries on North Korea, the US role in the region, and Japan steeped in assertions about the past. History looms as symbols, but our analyses do not dwell on individual symbols—territorial disputes, visits to shrines or memorials, textbooks, etc. We are looking rather for a broader understanding of why these symbols are invoked and how they matter in evolving foreign relations.
Zheng Wang has previously traced China’s rhetoric of humiliation. Here he updates his book, while focusing on how this legacy is reshaping China’s foreign policy in the region. Sergey Radchenko has intensely scrutinized how the Cold War was ended in Asia—delving into the inside story of bilateral relations between Russia and various states in the region, including China, Japan, South Korea, and India. In the article below, he looks back to that legacy for its relevance to Russia’s regional relations. I have studied the legacy of communism in Asia, stressing Sino-Russian relations in a new monograph, but also evaluating how their national identities influence thinking about relations with Japan and the Korean Peninsula. Below, I focus on the current impact of the communist legacy, briefly adding North Korea to the narrative. Finally, the legacy of Japanese revisionism is covered by Nakano Koichi, who has intensely followed Japanese politics. He extends his analysis below to how Japan’s domestic political agenda matters for current relations with various neighboring countries. In the articles we consider memories in China, Russia, and Japan, omitting South Korea.
Each of the four authors links historical memories to current international relations.
Zheng Wang analyzes memories centered on humiliation and how they have become resurgent and are influencing Chinese foreign policy. Sergey Radchenko assesses Russian thinking about Northeast Asia in the last stages of the Cold War and how it reveals continuities with the present and shapes recent foreign policy. I follow these two articles with my examination of the legacy of communist notions of national identity, concentrating on both China and Russia and taking note of North Korea, as I consider the implications for today’s international relations. Finally, the article by Nakano Koichi traces the impact of revisionist thinking already gaining traction in the 1980s as it intensified in Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party from the second half of the 1990s and reached its apex to date with Abe’s resumption of the post of prime minister in 2013, as manifested in foreign policy as well as in recent domestic policy. Together these four articles showcase the dynamics of a region which, despite what all of these countries insist is the importance of peace and stability to sustain record rates of growth in intra-regional trade and of multilateral diplomacy to achieve the denuclearization of North Korea, is now consumed by divisive historical memories.
The Special Forum begins with coverage of China, the driving force in this region.
Zheng Wang observes that China’s historical narrative over the past several decades has undergone far-reaching changes, even reversals. Tracing a shift in the narrative about humiliation to 1989, he identifies the three forces of chosenness, myths, and trauma as serving the leadership’s goal of reviving past glory and strength through a new source of legitimacy capable of resisting universal values. Zheng pays particular note of how Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” rhetoric raised the humiliation narrative to the signature ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, institutionalizing it. He also discusses mechanisms used to apply the narrative to foreign policy with examples related to its use in territorial disputes. Closest attention is given to Japan, and how clashing historical narratives are invoked in the current Sino-Japanese dispute. We not only find strong evidence here for the importance of historical narratives for international relations in East Asia, we also gain new appreciation for how views already embedded during the Cold War era are repackaged and made the nucleus of what is much more than a top-down national identity, arousing popular nationalism.
Sergey Radchenko argues that Sino-Russian relations are much more than a product of realpolitik rebalancing. Their practically uninterrupted forward development over the last thirty years suggests that more fundamental factors are at play. Ideological factors must be taken into account, he notes, explaining that in the 1980s normalization of state-to-state relations went hand-in-hand with party-to-party normalization, giving this relationship an extra layer of depth. For Putin and Xi Jinping, the deepest purpose of the relationship is to make sure that neither the Russian regime nor the Chinese Communist Party stands alone in the face of “revolutionary” contagion that could undermine its existing domestic order. They share fears of a “color revolution.” Radchenko further reflects on why there was no reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula, putting most of the onus on US thinking, which was not prepared for diplomacy with Pyongyang and continued to bear the legacy of the Cold War. Finally, he argues that, as during the 1980s, Japan and Russia view each other as in greater need of a breakthrough, allowing national identity to obscure realist diplomacy. For Russia problems have resulted from a messianic legacy that ordains it to lead in Asia, when no other country wants it to do so, and from what Radchenko calls “bloc mentality,” zero-sum reasoning that is driving Russia to China.
My article starts with the premise that ideology is only one dimension of national identity and traditional communist ideology should not obscure our view of other dimensions with greater lasting power. Comparisons of China and Russia in a search for continuities in how foreign policy challenges were perceived reveal continuities between the 1980s and the mid-2010s. Six prominent themes of past thinking about international relations are examined for what they can tell us about how the legacy of communist identity: 1) attitudes toward resolving issues on the Korean Peninsula through international relations; 2) attitudes toward Japan’s quest to reenter Asia while clinging to the US alliance; 3) attitudes toward US intentions to stop a line being drawn down the Pacific, excluding it; 4) attitudes in Southeast Asia to cling together through ASEAN and prevent great power relations from becoming adversarial; 5) attitudes toward sovereignty that oppose support for human rights and civil society; and 6) attitudes toward cultural relations that insist on sharp civilizational boundaries. This article concludes that in all six policy choices the narratives of today have reverted back, to at least some extent, to the essence of thinking in the 1980s before reforms intensified. Moreover, these views can be linked to various dimensions of national identity, which also show continuity.
Nakano Koichi traces the rise of historical revisionism in Japan, especially since the mid-1990s. He finds this worldview deeply entrenched, while liberal internationalism has grown ever weaker since its heyday in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s. Following the collapse of the pacifist left, Nakano finds the LDP free to indulge in internationally damaging revisionism. Not only does this make cooperation with China and South Korea much less possible, giving credibility to criticisms of Japan’s rising realism, it also leaves the United States in a quandary, disturbed by Japan’s counterproductive behavior. He puts the provocative statements of Abe Shinzo and other leaders in a broad political context, while explaining how their foreign impact was understood.
One question that each of these articles addresses is whether apparent reactions to symbolic transgressions linked to historical memories are the genuine causes of a deteriorating bilateral relationship or serve as convenient pretenses or, perhaps, catalysts for a downturn due primarily to other reasons. When Chinese or South Korean leaders and media take offense at one or another of the provocative moves of Japan’s leadership, there is no doubt that the national outcry is authentic, but is the timing and the intensity of the response such that an additional explanation is required? Focusing on the triggering event and immediate response falls short of recognizing the interplay between a longstanding legacy in need of clarification and perceptions of an external environment, into which this symbolic matter is placed.
In 2014 the symbols are clear enough. For Chinese, Japan’s nationalization of land on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and Abe’s December 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine are the most obtrusive symbols evoking history. One needs to appreciate not only the specific historical background, but also the broader national identity as a lens through which this history is seen. For South Koreans, Japan’s refusal to offer official compensation for the sex slaves during the war years as well as its claims to Dokdo/Takeshima Island even more than the Yasukuni Shrine visit stirs emotional rebukes. These symbols must be interpreted through a broader national identity lens too, as Koreans consider their place and Japan’s place in an evolving region. In Japan, one also increasingly finds a national identity framework through which the scolding of Chinese and South Koreans is filtered. While there is more disagreement on how to view one’s own history than in the other two countries, this does not lead to widespread acceptance of China’s critique or even the South Korean one. Added to this picture is the way Vladimir Putin has cultivated historical memory to pursue his geopolitical and national identity objectives. He, Xi Jinping, and Abe personify the identity ideals now espoused, while Park Geun-hye even without a similar agenda of reconstructing the worldview of her nation has not been shy about conveying ideals.
Why do legacies remain strong even when they seem to have faded or to be dormant for a number of years? One reason is elite continuity. The leaders who took power in LDP governments after the US occupation of Japan presented one face to the outside world and another in internal Japanese political fighting. China’s leadership after the purges of 1987 and 1989 soon accentuated its bifurcated worldview of opening the door to the outside world for economic reasons while tightening control on behalf of a narrow approach to national identity rooted in communist identity. Similarly, the elite of Soviet communism had regrouped by the mid-1990s with narrowing tolerance for outside influences. Even when a new train of thought seems to be in the forefront, the reserved attitude of the old elite, who still hold the bulk of high-level positions, is an indication that national identity may have changed much less than thought.
Another reason for continuity is the contradictory nature of the new thinking and the holdover ideals that make its success problematic. A transitional period finds many people gravitating to an unsustainable combination of attitudes. They may be in favor of democracy, but they count on a strong state. They may support market forces, but they are resistant to competition that is not heavily controlled by the state. Accepting, in principle, some ideals of globalization, they are nostalgic about spheres of influence and other approaches at odds with these ideals. While various observers may posit a transition in which these barriers to new thinking fade away, there may be a much greater likelihood, with success as China achieved or failure as Russia experienced in the 1990s, of a resurgence of the earlier ways of thinking. The liberal international relations theory argument that success in economic integration and inclusion in global and regional institutions reduces suspicions and transforms national identity rooted in distrust is refuted by China’s experience over thirty years and Russia’s success in the 2010s. Realist theory that failure and increasing security threats leads to choosing partners to meet those threats is also refuted by decisions in Northeast Asia, such as Chinese and Russian support for North Korea and Japan’s priority for revisionism over a defense partnership with South Korea. Examining the way historical memories have been invoked since the 1980s from four distinctive perspectives gives us reason to look more skeptically at existing theories in the field of international relations, as each author refocuses attention on national identities.