As most Americans were grasping the reality of President Trump’s electoral defeat last month, something happened on the other side of the earth that may prove even more momentous. Fifteen Asian countries representing one-third of humanity signed the biggest international trade deal ever. The new bloc is dominated by three of the world’s most vibrant nations: China, Japan, and South Korea. Combined, they have wealth equal to that of the United States and more than four times the population. All three have daunting military potential. And now that they have joined in a new trade bloc, their leaders want to deepen cooperation. It is a staggering prospect. If China, Japan, and South Korea could turn their economic partnership into a political alliance, they would jointly have little trouble brushing the United States aside to become the world’s top dog.
Don’t panic yet, though. A titanic force stands in the way of this fantasy alliance. It’s not the United States, which has dwindling ability to shape events in the rest of the world. Instead, it’s a force more potent than any nation: history. If China, Japan, and South Korea could start with a clean slate, they might quickly draw together. But in geopolitics, there’s no such thing as a clean slate. The three countries have centuries of conflict behind them. This history outweighs self-interest. It prevents the emergence of an alliance that, under other circumstances, could dominate the 21st century.
The new Asian trade accord, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, unites China, Japan, and South Korea with 10 Southeast Asian countries plus Australia and New Zealand. They will now begin cutting tariffs by as much as 90 percent. It is another sign that, as former US Trade Representative Wendy Cutler observed, “our Asian trading partners have developed a confidence about working together without the United States.”
This accord also sets off dreams of a new three-nation power bloc. Japan has floated the idea of a full free-trade zone that would unite it with China and South Korea. President Xi Jinping of China replied that he is ready to “speed up negotiations” aimed at creating such a zone. Political partnership would be the logical next step.
It won’t happen anytime soon. The trade accord was a breakthrough in part because it showed that Japan, China, and South Korea could rise above some of their history. A true alliance would require them to rise above all of it. That seems just short of impossible. History holds these countries in its pitiless power.
In northeast Asia, as in much of the world, close neighbors have been the bitterest of enemies.
For starters, there’s the simple fact that Japan and Korea have been at war periodically for more than a thousand years. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea, beginning a harsh 35-year occupation. Today, South Koreans demand that Japan compensate them for this horror, which included slave labor and the use of captured Koreans as “comfort women” to serve Japanese soldiers in brothels during World War II. Japan, however, is notorious for its refusal to face the truth of its history, and rejects responsibility for atrocities in Korea. Younger generations in the two countries have developed close cultural affinities, but history keeps intruding. In 2018, a South Korean court awarded compensation to four Koreans who had been pressed into forced labor by the Japanese. Japan responded with outrage, economic sanctions, and consumer boycotts. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan recently called good relations with South Korea “indispensable,” but he quickly added that it was up to Koreans to make the first concessions.
Before Japan came to dominate the Korean peninsula, China had its turn. Chinese forces invaded Korea twice in the 17th century. Relations between the giant empire and the small peninsula have been fraught ever since. In 2016 South Korea deployed an American anti-missile system over China’s loud objections. The dispute was set aside within a year, but history leads many South Koreans to fear that China cannot be trusted. According to a Pew poll taken in October, 83 percent of South Koreans do not believe China would “do the right thing in world affairs.”
The third side of this potential power triangle, Japan-China, is also freighted with history. Japan invaded and crushed a prostrate China in 1895. Its occupation of China during World War II was horrifically brutal. Wounds fester because Japan refuses to acknowledge infamous atrocities like the 1937 Nanking Massacre. Japan, for its part, fears that China’s military buildup signals a return to its long imperial past.
History, personified in Greek mythology as the muse Clio, is a jealous mistress. She alone prevents China, Japan, and South Korea from uniting to rule the world. The muse of history reminds us that everything nations do today shapes their prospects in the world of tomorrow.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.