Both Koreas soon will be governed by the progeny of Cold War strongmen. China is in the hands of the son of one of Mao Tse-tung’s revolutionary comrades. The incoming prime minister of Japan is a long-standing hawk and the grandson of one of Japan’s war cabinet leaders.
The future is looking uninspiringly like the past in Northeast Asia. And although few (other than doomsday theorists) are predicting another war, the alignment of new leaders seems likely to cause some bumps in the year ahead.
“In the short term, I take a pessimistic view. Some kind of new Cold War-type confrontation could happen,” said Han Yong-sup of the Korea National Defense University, speaking in Seoul this month at a conference on China’s transition.
Any transition is a sensitive period, as new leaders try to establish their nationalist bona fides with their own public, and Northeast Asia is going through three simultaneously.
The Chinese Communist Party last month installed Xi Jinping as general secretary amid a robust campaign to assert Chinese sovereignty in the South China and East China seas. He is to become president in March. Japan and South Korea had elections three days apart last week, selecting conservative governments.
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, 29, has been in power only a year and directed a satellite launch Dec. 12 in what many believe was an effort to assert his legitimacy as the heir to his late father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
Foreign policy analysts say that as the leaderships go through transitions, the countries are also jockeying for position in a changing world order in which China plays a newly dominant role.
China’s rapid growth has it on course to become the world’s largest economy this decade, and its projection of newfound power is putting pressure on all the other countries in the region.
“There is potential for rising tensions and mishandling of important relationships from every direction,” said Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Though family legacy may not be destiny, it is at least an interesting coincidence that all four of the new Asian leaders have significant nationalist bloodlines.
China’s new leader is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a Communist guerrilla who later became a key economic reformer. Although advance billing pegged the younger Xi as a pragmatist and reformer as well, his early speeches have had a nationalistic edge that is causing anxiety. He’s spoken frequently of “renewal” and “rejuvenation,” unlike the outgoing president, Hu Jintao, whose favorite catchword has been “harmony.”
Some analysts interpret Xi’s words as a call for the recovery of territory ceded during China’s years of weakness and humiliation in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“That term ‘harmonious society’ is finished,” said Jin Canrong, a political scientist at People’s University in Beijing speaking at the conference in Seoul.
Ten days after Xi replaced Hu as party secretary, as well as commander of the military, China announced its first successful landing on its new aircraft carrier. Xi also made one of his first visits to a key military base in Huizhou, in the southern province of Guangdong, telling soldiers that China must “ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and a strong military.”
Xi’s involvement in the disputed seas began well before moving up to the leadership. Over the summer, he joined a high-level maritime commission and, according to a former military officer, is close to Liu Cigui, the head of the oceanic administration, an agency at the forefront of the disputes.
The Chinese oceanic administration’s ships in April closed off a lagoon near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, 140 miles off the coast of the Philippines’ Subic Bay, and have refused to leave, taking “de facto” control, according to Philippine officials. Chinese vessels -- and a surveillance plane -- have also become a presence in Japanese waters near the contested islands called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.
“The Chinese have concluded that everything short of the military use of force is acceptable,” said Bonnie Glaser of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, who says the Chinese have used their marine and fishing vessels as paramilitary in the dispute. “China wants to protect their interests and they have developed a much bigger toolbox to do so.”
Teng Jianqun, a military analyst with the China Institute of International Studies, points to a speech Xi gave in July in which he referred to foreign policy being designed to uphold sovereignty as well as stability.
“It is only a slight adjustment to restore balance in foreign policy.... There will be more emphasis on sovereignty,” said Teng.
The brinkmanship between Japan and China could easily spill out of control. In September, tens of thousands of Chinese, some carrying portraits of Mao, poured into the streets in anti-Japan protests. Hundreds of Japanese-model cars were trashed. This month, when a two-engine Chinese oceanic administration surveillance plane flew near the disputed islands, Japan responded by scrambling F-15 fighter jets.
Into the fray comes Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, whose Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory in elections Dec. 16 and who set the tone in his first postelection interview, swearing he wouldn’t cede “1 millimeter” of the islands to China.
Abe’s election last week and that of new South Korean leader Park Geun-hye probably came as a relief to the U.S. government because their opponents were less enthusiastic about the presence of American troops in the region. But Abe is widely disliked in China and Korea for downplaying Japanese atrocities in the 1930s, including the sexual enslavement of “comfort women” for Japanese troops.
His maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served as prime minister in the 1950s, was imprisoned for three years at the end of World War II for war crimes, and although he wasn’t convicted, Chinese and Koreans invariably point out the connection.
An editorial last week in the China Daily compared Abe’s grandfather to Nazi architect Albert Speer and the atmosphere in Tokyo to 1930s Germany.
In the campaign, Abe promised he would amend Japan’s pacifist postwar constitution to enhance the military and said he regretted that during an earlier stint as prime minister he had declined to go to the notorious Yasukuni shrine, dedicated to Japan’s war dead.
“People keep saying that Abe’s bark is worse than his bite,” said Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean ambassador to the United States. “But I’ve got to admit that between political developments in Japan and rising nationalism in China, I’m concerned.”
Perhaps the least overtly militant of the new crop of leaders is Park, who was elected Wednesday in South Korea, a country where the left tends to be more nationalistic. But the 60-year-old Park carries her own historical baggage as the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the fiercely anti-Communist leader who seized power in 1961 and ruled until his assassination in 1979.
As far as relations with China are concerned, Park speaks some Chinese (as well as English) and has traveled to Beijing several times as a special envoy for outgoing President Lee Myung-bak.
But her election does not bode well for relations with Pyongyang, which had clearly banked on a victory by Moon Jae-in, a liberal who had pledged to bring back the “sunshine” policy of open cooperation between the Koreas.
“Electing Shinzo Abe in Japan and Park Geun-hye in South Korea is a setback for both countries. We can expect them to have a firm stand against North Korea and it will complicate efforts to make peace and cooperate in Northeast Asia,” said Jeong Ji-hyun, a political science graduate student and disappointed Moon supporter.
Although Park has also pledged to improve relations with Pyongyang, which deteriorated during the last five years, it might not be so simple. If past patterns hold true, North Korea will welcome the new administration in Seoul with a provocation, such as a nuclear test or a skirmish at sea.
During the campaign, Pyongyang’s propaganda machine lashed out at Park, its official news service sniping that “a dictator’s bloodline cannot change away from its viciousness.”
Late Thursday, the North Korean news service reported the news of Park’s electoral victory in a one-sentence dispatch saying that the ruling party candidate “was elected with a slim margin.” The report did not mention her name.
Special correspondent Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul contributed to this report.