The Angry Pacific

Why the United States is not ready for conflict in Asia.


When I was in Seoul a few weeks ago, the English-language news program Korea Today broadcast a strangely fascinating story about an "I Love Dokdo" contest at Taegu University. The idea was to see who could come up with the most inspiring tribute to the patch of microislands that has been the focus of a recurring and bitter dispute with Japan. It was strange to see young Koreans sitting on a spare, modernist television set, smiling, laughing and calmly celebrating a nationalist routine. Even odder was the fact that a Mexican exchange student named Emilio, along with a multinational team, won the contest. The goal of their performance, he said on Korea Today, was to "to express our love for Dokdo," in part by showing "the people who have protected Dokdo throughout history" and demonstrating "how beautiful" the islands are.

The contest was but one example of a surge of patriotic fervor in Korea after President Lee Myung-bak visited the islands this August. Stories about the issue fill the pages of daily newspapers. A Dokdo museum has opened in Seoul. During his August visit, Lee called the islands "a place worth staking our lives to defend." At the London Olympics, after the South Korean soccer team’s victory over Japan, a Korean player rushed to the center of the field and held up a sign that read, "Dokdo is our territory."

Korea’s attitude toward its territorial argument with Japan is symptomatic of the central emerging strategic reality in Asia: Much of the region is passing through a sort of geopolitical identity crisis, with key regional powers determined to find a more elaborate role for themselves. Globalization and interdependence are making people nostalgic for a more secure grasp on local cultures and traditions. The result is likely to be a period whose major risks of conflict will derive less from intentional calculations of national advantage than from a boiling clash of identity, pride, prestige, nationalism, and honor.

The conventional wisdom says that the main test of American strategy in Asia is the "rise of China." In fact, a far bigger challenge may be the growing dominance of these emotional identity issues, because traditional U.S. instruments of statecraft are simply not well suited to dealing with them. A year into the "pivot to Asia," Washington has designed a strategy for a 21st century, Soviet-style deterrence challenge: cold, calculating, pragmatic. Yet when dealing with the psycho-social dramas of countries clashing over pride and identity as much as interests, America’s usual m.o. may not have the intended effect. Remarkably, the major strategic risk confronting the United States in Asia today may be its insistence on thinking "strategically."

Many outsiders expressed bewilderment that South Korea could go off on a nationalist binge over a handful of jagged rocks whose sole permanent inhabitants are a single elderly Korean couple. But that, as analyst Jason Lim argued, missed the point. The significance of Dokdo "is not really about logic or reason," he explained. It doesn’t primarily have to do with national interests or resources. The dispute "is about emotions," he argued, the "deep emotional trauma that occurred as a result of Imperial Japan’s brutal occupation that has since been internalized into Korea’s cultural narrative and represents an unhealed psychic scar that has become an article of faith with an almost religious significance." In Seoul, a perfect storm of these sorts of emotion-laden historical legacies, rising national pride and assertiveness, and the political calculations of current leadership generated a willingness to provoke a crisis.

This same treacherous combination can be found in a dozen states throughout the region. On the Japanese side — which refers to the islands as Takeshima — the public is not as generally engaged, but the dispute has been fodder for right-wing groups, which have harped on the issue for years as a nationalist cause. More broadly, Japan is tentatively nosing into new debates about its own identity even as it is challenged by regional counterparts who believe it has yet to come fully to terms with its past — and the likely candidates for prime minister in Japan’s surging opposition party, such as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are more hawkish nationalists than the current leaders. "Japan’s beautiful seas and its territory are under threat," Abe has said, "and young people are having trouble finding hope in the future amid economic slump. I promise to protect Japan’s land and sea, and the lives of the Japanese people, no matter what."

The same sort of nationalistic, prideful identity-seeking has been unleashed in China. While Beijing’s interests in the South China Sea are typically viewed as hard-nosed and measurable (resources, regional influence, naval bases), in fact the disputes are increasingly being posed by many domestic commentators as a test of China’s ability to throw off centuries of "Western domination." Current waves of xenophobic Chinese nationalism may be partly orchestrated by the government for short-term political ends, but the result is nonetheless a very real, increasingly violent sensibility. As politics in China becomes more open, free-flowing, and unpredictable, Beijing’s ability to control this explosive factor may be declining. Millions of Chinese participate in microblogs, thousands with a distinctly nationalist flavor and many largely under the radar of government control. Hundreds of small-scale protests have broken out featuring nationalists themes, a process of grassroots activism that is becoming increasingly common in China.

Prideful nationalism is thriving elsewhere in the region. India has had a firmly established nationalist party for years and witnessed occasionally violent xenophobic outbreaks. Vietnamese nationalism builds on generations of pride and honor in the face of foreign challenge; new expressions have been tied into territorial disputes — young Vietnamese, for example, are posting patriotic songs online indicating their fidelity to contested islands.

Such nationalism and collective identity-seeking is hardly new, but the information age has fashioned more powerful channels through which it can flow and manipulate a society. A senior analyst in Seoul told me that U.S. policy remained focused on "objective calculation of interests" — but in an era of openness, Twitter, and an active blogosphere, "it seems to me more and more that peoples’ emotion matters." As a result, another experienced scholar concluded, "territorial disputes are not strategic issues. They are about so much more" — identity, history and nationalism, factors that tend to be "adamant and resolute" in the face of challenge, as opposed to malleable bargaining points of strategic advantage.

To be sure, pragmatic considerations remain central to national strategies. China covets resources more than nationalist self-satisfaction in the South China Sea. Beijing’s official policy has focused on a consistent set of territorial claims and avoided nationalist extremes. Leaders still take actions for carefully-calibrated political reasons. Many observers expect even a hawkish new Japanese prime minister to take a pragmatic and moderate course once in office; for all his bluster, in his prior stint as prime minister Abe was known as more of a conciliator than aggressor.

But increasingly the context of Asian politics will be shaped by waves of identity politics. And as the United States deploys elements of geopolitics and grand strategy — military forces, "enhanced credibility," diplomatic presence, "strategic partnerships" — to deal with challenges that are essentially un-strategic, the limits of U.S. influence will be increasingly apparent. In the current Korea-Japan dispute, for example, as two erstwhile allies have traded blows and accusations for months, the United States has largely been relegated to the sidelines. Neither Seoul nor Tokyo wanted America to dictate outcomes. More broadly, states are demanding high degrees of autonomy in defense planning and don’t want to be drawn into U.S. plans for regional deterrence schemes transparently aimed at China. In a context of identity-seekers, an approach of building "partnerships" or quasi-alliances will hit natural limits.

But the dangers go well past a lack of influence. Deploying Bismarckian instruments into a field of identity-seekers could be very risky. Shoving a carrier battle group into the face of an increasingly nationalistic and prideful China during a future crisis could signal the West’s continued desire to repress its power and spark a violent Chinese response. There are also escalatory risks. The effect of nationalism may reduce the effectiveness of traditional U.S. tools of statecraft — but once committed to a cause or a crisis, Washington may believe that its "credibility is on the line" and feel compelled to keep escalating, right into conflict.

An alternative would be to focus on looser multilateral networks designed to build cooperation around areas of shared interest. The United States is already doing this on issues like nonproliferation, counterpiracy, and counterterrorism. It could add norm-building on cyber threats, an initiative on alternatives to fossil fuels, and other concepts. Such efforts could draw in private actors like businesses and NGOs and provide for much-expanded Track 1.5/Track 2 and person-to-person exchange programs. The idea is to cultivate cooperation where interests overlap while building up influential groups within these states who have knowledge of and stakes in expanding security collaboration. Such a process would gradually help to convey to regional populaces that collaborative groups of experts, scholars, and officials from all their nations are working for mutual benefit — generating a powerful habit of practice and source of evidence that will partly insulate populations against the next nationalist outburst.

Despite the potential value of such networks, U.S. policy remains focused on building strategic partnerships and shoring up U.S. deterrent capabilities. Reassuring nations about U.S. staying power has value, but to address a region marinating in identity politics, we should flip the priorities, and spend the dominant portion of U.S. diplomatic efforts, resources, and security partnering on collaborative, multilateral networks designed to address mutual challenges. Instead of negotiating new basing rights for a battalion in Australia, for example, we should be developing a regional action network on renewable energy or cybersecurity. Such approaches could address the security risks of identity-seekers by muting specific disagreements, encouraging a habit of collaboration, and undermining more extreme xenophobic nationalisms.

Doing this won’t be easy. States in the region have powerfully divergent perspectives and interests and often reject outsiders trying to shape outcomes. But that’s what effective diplomacy is all about — and such a role would position the United States for another long run of leadership, not through a dominant role in alliances or an overpowering regional military presence, but by leading the region toward stability by discovering shared interests and leading toward norms and institutions. This is, after all, the role America has been playing since 1945. We just need to find new ways to keep playing it, in a more sustainable form and a tone more suited to the emerging strategic era.

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