From territorial disputes in the East China Sea to heated propaganda wars across the region, peace in northeast Asia seems increasingly tenuous. At the heart of rising tensions are unresolved historical issues related to World War II, which drive a wedge between the United States’ two main allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, and fuel a revived rivalry between Japan and China. As the main victor in World War II, the United States has some responsibility for these disputes. It constructed the postwar regional order and has been largely content since then to view the matter as settled, even though issues of territory, compensation, and historical justice were left unresolved. During the Cold War, when the region’s main players were cut off from each other, the United States’ approach worked well. But as the region democratizes and grows increasingly integrated, long-buried issues are coming to the surface. As U.S. President Barack Obama heads to Japan and South Korea this month, it is time for the United States to tackle wartime history in Asia head on.
American officials were confronted by the uncomfortable realities of wartime issues last year, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, without warning, made an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including some who had been convicted and executed as Class-A war criminals. The Japanese leader certainly understood that his decision would irk China and South Korea, which see such visits as signals of Tokyo’s embrace of an unapologetic view of Japan’s wartime aggression. What was even more troubling was that the visit came only a few weeks after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden apparently received assurances from Abe that Tokyo would avoid any such provocations. Biden subsequently encouraged South Korean President Park Geun-hye to sit down with the Japanese leader, although Park questioned whether he could be trusted to hold his historical revisionism in check -- a concern that was clearly justified.