Too often, we see East Asia only from an economic perspective, marveling at the undeniable success of China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea. Yet these nations have another story to tell, one that owes less to current economic performance than to much older instincts: nationalism and ethnic resentment, the forces that kindled World War I in Sarajevo. Today, those forces underlie disputes in places that we ignore or know nothing about, such as the Senkaku Islands, the Dokdo Islands, and the Spratly archipelago. And those disputes may spark military conflicts between rival Asian countries.

Such thinking goes against the theory that trade must soothe centuries-old enmities, that commerce annihilates even the temptation of war. Isn’t this the lesson of Jean Monnet’s brilliant vision, the European Union? Wars disappeared in Europe when replaced by trade. And Asian countries certainly cooperate with one another commercially; the products that we buy after they’re exported from one Asian country or another are actually composed of pieces that travel from factory to factory in China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

South Korea’s conservative government, however, has refused any military cooperation with Japan because the Japanese refuse to recognize South Korean sovereignty on two uninhabitable islets halfway between the two countries (known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese). Each government refers to old treaties and ancient maps to assert its rights, both refuse to enter arbitration, and the matter remains unsettled. Even North Korea supports South Korea in this case—the only area of agreement between the two rivals. In South Korea, Dokdo has become a symbol of resistance to Japanese imperialism. If one points out that such imperialism disappeared in 1945, South Korean politicians and pundits counter that the Japanese soul is imperialist and that Japan’s current government wants to build a nuclear arsenal. In truth, only a few extreme nationalists in Japan harbor that nuclear desire. But now, apparently in response, conservative contenders for the South Korean presidency want to pursue nuclear power as well.

The status of Senkaku (or Diaoyuin, in Chinese), located south of the Japanese archipelago, is likewise unclear. Though these islands are administered by Japan and owned, under Japanese law, by a group of Japanese families, China considers them part of its own empire, and Taiwan also claims them. Chinese vessels constantly patrol near Senkaku, harassing and sometimes sinking Japanese fishing boats. In the Western media, American and European political leaders have focused on the islets’ economic resources, which include fishing zones and possibly gas and oil wells. But if China, Taiwan, and Japan were concerned only with economics, they could find other seas to fish and other wells to drill. The dispute is actually symbolic, motivated by old nationalist feelings and the traditional Asian concern with making one’s adversary lose face. After Chinese vessels rammed Japanese trawlers in 2010, the Japanese government failed to react strongly. This year, the Japanese government is looking for revenge by pushing for the nationalization of Senkaku.

Further south, in the Spratly archipelago—claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia—the potential for conflict is even greater. Here, too, rumors about gas mines confer on Spratly an economic value that would establish rational grounds for conflict. But these energy resources have not yet been confirmed, so the likelier reason for tension is nationalism. In Spratly as in Senkaku, Chinese imperialism tests the resistance of its neighbors, some of which—Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and to some extent even India—are considering an alliance against China. Washington has provoked Chinese anger by supporting the idea. An American shadow hangs over the region already, since the Seventh Fleet ensures the security of the shipping routes. Without it, the Asian economic web would have disintegrated long ago.

The Pacific pressure cooker undermines another piece of conventional wisdom: that military conflict cannot arise between democratic countries. Democratic South Korea and democratic Japan have failed to negotiate minor business and trade issues. Worse, South Korea’s position in this dispute puts it closer to dictatorial North Korea and China than to democratic Japan. On the whole, the burden of history and the internal tensions of a common civilization prove stronger than contemporary political and economic considerations. The potential alliance against China in the Spratly dispute would bring democracies together with the Communist dictatorship of Vietnam—supposedly every bit as Communist as China’s.

Each day seems to bring new provocations. The Korean president has set foot on Dokdo, soon followed by a group of Japanese nationalists. China has sent a naval detachment to the Spratlys. Japanese police have arrested a group of Chinese on Senkaku. Of course, current circumstances play a role in exacerbating these conflicts. Asia’s economy is slowing down; its governments are variously weak (Japan), undergoing transition (South Korea, China) or in search of legitimacy (Vietnam, China). But that should be small comfort, because aggressive nationalism can be an outlet for nations facing such uncertainties. In Asia, neither economics nor democracy dissolves nationalist zeal.


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