YOU CALL IT DOKDO, THEY CALL IT TAKESHIMA: Putting Asia Stability at Risk- Playing the Wrong Game Risks Playing Into the Wrong Hands

Look before you leap. This is a venerable American saying. Look carefully before you leap emotionally.

So if I were one of the good people of the Republic of Korea, for whom my admiration is deep, long-standing and well known (as my Japanese friends understand well), I would be prudent about my next step regarding the hapless handful of disputed island-rocks known as Dokdo in South Korea… but as Takeshima in at least one other place.

For the controversy rages anew. Some are raising old wartime issues which (in one case) ushered in the comic storming of Dokdo by your outgoing president, as if he were the second coming of General Macarthur. And in Japan some high-ups, though not speaking officially for the Prime Minister, undermine the good will of past official apologies with truly stupid statements. I frankly predict this: nothing good from all this will come; and perhaps a lot of bad.

First let us go to Beijing for perspective: please accept that the Chinese, despite all their troubles, must be trying very hard not to laugh loudly.  They don’t want anyone, especially in Washington, to sense how delighted they are with the recurrence of the island-rocks psychodrama. Topographically, the disputed territory adds up to something like 46-plus acres (less than a golf course). But geopolitically, the Japanese and Koreans are at each others throats- again. So this is a big-time opening for the boys in Beijing.

And what fun they could have!

This is really good for us, say the Chinese leaders, although very quietly (in fact just among themselves). They don’t want Seoul and Tokyo to take notice of their mirth and possibly stop their quarrel. Rock-solid ROK/GOJ solidarity is not in the Chinese interest.  Foolishly combative bilateral South Korean-Japanese relations are.

These days, in fact, any degree of significant disunity in Asia, especially on the part of America’s allies and friends, can strengthen China’s interests, which of course is problematic to the extent their interest oppose ours, as inevitably sometimes they must.

For one thing, the Seoul-Tokyo Bad Neighbor Policy can throw off balance the U.S. ambition, in its now famous policy “pivot” to the region, of organizing its allies in Asia into one big political cooperative. In fact, without some level of US-led consensus, Beijing is crowned anew as the residential big shot on the regional block. Don’t our history lessons tell us that a measure of balance in world geopolitics is generally good for everyone?

Fragmentation offers Beijing peace of mind and creates exploitable leverage. Especially with regard to the current territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but in all other matters Asian as well, Beijing understandably prefers dealing with nations one-on-one. Well-constructed alliances with the West or genuine indigenous regional organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN), potentially challenge nascent Chinese hegemony. So they need to be subtly frustrated, if not overtly opposed. To put it this way: if Asian geopolitics were like a basketball game, Beijing likes to play the position of Yao Ming against an opposing team of midgets.

And so when the Obama administration began pressuring Seoul and Tokyo to move closer on matters of military security- to share more information and to think and even act more as a team- the Chinese became worried.  They also know that in this matter their erstwhile ally Pyongyang is more hindrance than help, if it continues on more or less the same isolated, miscalculating and arrogant course.

But the Chinese can control their Machiavellianism if it enhances their prosperity. And only continued Asian peace does that. Truly destabilizing tensions between Seoul and Tokyo are like a potential earthquake rumbling beneath everyone’s feet. Victory and benefit for the Korean and Japanese people will not come from the headline-seekers or the exploiters of understandable but corrosive emotion and distrust but from the statesmen and visionaries who can see past their own immediate political interests.

Both South Korea and Japan can and have produced leaders of such stature. Two whom I have met- and personally interviewed for my column- are the late Kim Dae Jung, the peace-seeking Korean president who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, and the late Keizo Obuchi, the workaholic Japanese president who basically died in office from massive fatigue while working for the betterment of Japan.

In 1998, the two memorably met in Tokyo to bury the hatchet on the wartime crimes issue. They declared “their common determination to raise to a higher dimension the close, friendly and cooperative relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea which have been built since the normalization of their relations in 1965, so as to build a new Japan-Republic of Korea partnership towards the twenty-first century.”

That was ever the high-water mark in diplomacy for the two countries.  And so it is these two statesmen who set the standard of cooperative excellence to which the great peoples of Korea and Japan must strive. Everything and anything else is mere demagoguery and even, potentially, warmongering.

So judge your politician’s policy and vision by the high-road Kim-Obuchi standard.  Whatever their personal flaws, they were among Asia’s greatest postwar best. Accept no substitutes or pathetic poseurs. It is your future– and that of your children– with which the mean men will be playing the danger game.

Not to mention– why make it so easy for Beijing to divide and perhaps even dominate?

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