Has World War II ended in the Pacific theater?
That might seem a silly question in a year when the leaders of Japan and South Korea are coming, separately, to Washington in part to mark the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ victory in Asia.
But they’re coming at a time when tensions between Japan and Korea are “as high as they’ve ever been” in the past half-century, as Asia scholar Michael Auslin said recently.
“I’m not sure how the situation can get much worse,” agreed Kurt Campbell, the State Department’s top Asia official during President Obama’s first term. “The totality of it is enormously harmful to both countries, but more importantly . . . this is harmful to the United States.”
“We can’t pivot to Asia if we don’t have Japan and Korea with us,” concurred Victor Cha, a senior White House official for Asia policy under President George W. Bush. “And the relationship’s become such that it’s difficult to do that.”
All of which prompted scholar Nicholas Eberstadt, speaking at the sameAmerican Enterprise Institute panel as the others last month, to pose this question: “How can you tell whether you’re in an interwar period or in a postwar period?”
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Eberstadt noted, courageous leaders in Europe helped put historical questions to rest and bind France, Germany and eventually the entire continent, first in a common market for steel, eventually in NATO and the European Union.
In Northeast Asia, there are no such structures, for security or economics. There are still two Koreas and two Chinas. Japan has territorial disputes with China, Korea and Russia. Koreans and Chinese, or at least their governments, seem angrier at Japan today over its behavior before and during the war than they were a generation ago.
You can see the contrast, Campbell said, in the two theaters’ battlefields: In Europe, “manicured cemeteries . . . cultivated in a way to remind everyone about how things had been put in an appropriate historical context.
“If you go to any of the battlefields in Asia, in Peleliu or any of the islands, it’s like they’ve stopped fighting and just dropped their equipment,” Campbell said. “It’s like it’s still with us.”
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