Looking Backwards, Pivoting Sideways

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Vice President Joe Biden meets with Chinese officials in Los Angeles. For any U.S. balancing act in Asia to gain traction over the next 100 years, the U.S. must accept responsibility for America’s role in the region’s modern past — not just its wars but their aftermaths as well. (Photo:
Antonio R. Villaraigosa / Flickr)

A shout out to Confucius is necessary because he gets at the heart of the problem with U.S. East Asia policy today: “When the names are not correct, language does not match the truth of things.”

What began as a “pivot” several years ago is now a “rebalance.” Yet it is neither. And since the U.S. government doesn’t appear to have the resources to pay for its new Asia policy, the final result will not likely correspond to the initial vision.

In the attempt to explain what “it” is — which remains more an attempt to explain what “it” is not — Washington has succeeded in making clear that the Navy wants lots of cool new stuff. Beyond that, American policy in East Asia remains confused at best. On a country-by-country level, different “desks” at the State Department may appear to have a handle on what practitioners are doing. But such efforts — especially regarding China and Japan — are now openly at cross-purposes. Specifically, the vibrant China envisaged in U.S. policy is on a collision course with the more self-reliant Japan likewise championed, while Korea falls into the gap.

Nowhere was this clearer than during Vice President Biden’s December 2013 visit to the region, which took place only days after Beijing’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea (similar to the one that Japan has maintained for years). In Tokyo, Biden assured Japanese colleagues that the United States firmly backed Japan’s opposition to China’s action, yet in Beijing he refrained from any open criticism. Whether Chinese officials believed that Washington sided with them was not as apparent as Japanese officials’ displayed dismay: “They let us down.” Several weeks later, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spurned America’s flaccid approach when he dismissed Biden’s warning not to visit the notorious Yasukuni Shrine to war dead, thus dragging the entire region into a New Year’s spasm of retrograde fury. And yet again, American policy boiled down to the now counterproductive: “Why can’t they just get along?”

With many observers openly chattering about the restart of a new Cold War — as if the wars in Asia since 1945 have ever been anything but “hot” — increasingly it seems that U.S. policy is incapable of looking forward. Instead, it is defaulting to backwards and sideways views of alliances and security agreements forged in the wake of World War II with Japan and South Korea. This predicament is clearest today in the territorial disputes that Japan has with each of its international neighbors in the region — including China, Russia, and Korea. Rather than springing out of nowhere, each of these disputes has a history with critical U.S. involvement.

As victor in 1945, the United States became at once the architect and the border patrol of a new map for the region. Included within the newly “democratic” Japan were today’s dangerous rocks, whose sovereignty we left hanging as well as several others in the area’s waters.

President Harry Truman’s special representative to the Allied peace process with Japan, John Foster Dulles, kept abundant correspondence while making territorial decisions. His records and the records of other diplomats involved make clear that those finalizing the post-war final map of East Asia would not fully commit to naming who owned what for reasons ranging from real and perceived threats of Communist takeover of the entire area — including Japan — to a desire to cement the need for American power in the region. At the time, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made known its displeasure with this gamble. On January 17, 1952 Senator Tom Connally wrote Dulles that the formula was “vague and contained the germ of future conflicting claims.”

Fast forward to the present and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who opened the door for China’s recent move in the East China Sea by avoiding specific mention of today’s hotly contested islands during the major Asia policy speech she delivered late last November at Georgetown University, the day before China declared its air zone. To be sure, she noted “maritime disputes in the East China Sea,” but from China’s perspective, this would begin with Taiwan. Rice’s lack of specificity echoed omissions in Dean Acheson’s 1950 perimeter speech that not only described America’s Pacific interests but practically invited Beijing to test the air over the islands it disputes with Japan. In Tokyo, meanwhile, hardliners who believe that Washington will abandon Japan for China found vindication in Rice’s speech that their nation should forge ahead on a far more militarized path.

It is increasingly commonplace to say that the region’s history problems are security problems. Avoided still, however, are ways that Washington’s past and present policies sustain this fraught situation. Without tackling this problem head on there can be no successful future U.S. policy for the region no matter what it ends up getting called.

To be sure, all sides use the past to justify their respective interests in the present and for the future. Japan has recently been more vocal about its past and more defiant about its historical crimes. Only very recently did those in Washington championing a more militarily proactive Japan — which is supposed to partner with Washington on the “pivot” — finally get broadsided by the particularly venal view of the past 100 years that a small but very powerful group of Japanese politicians, educators, and pundits holds. DC’s Japan hands had reassured everyone that history was unimportant compared with nuclear weapons, among other things, yet the current Japanese leadership — held afloat by the revanchists — gives lie to this claim. Prime Minister Abe and his cohort callously toss about past histories as if the words themselves were missiles, while at the same time advocating a national course for Japan that eschews the longstanding constitutional proscription against actual war.

For any Washington balancing act to gain traction over the next 100 years, U.S. policy must more fully comprehend and accept responsibility for America’s role in the region’s modern past — not just its wars but their aftermaths as well. It is time for the United States to use its formidable power for good to unravel a host of historical problems. But to achieve progress on vital matters such as the denuclearization of North Korea, we must acknowledge that we helped create many of the region’s problems in the first place.

Alexis Dudden is a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, and the author of Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States (Columbia University Press, 2008). She will be one of the panelists in the event on Asian security sponsored by FPIF and the Asia Institute on March 26 at the Institute for Policy Studies.