For some years now, the nuclear ambition and seemingly unintelligible behaviour of North Korea has dominated the international headlines, making it seem as if the North Korean 'problem' is the only historical baggage left over from the early years of the last century.

However, the outbreak of widespread and sometimes violent anti-Japan demonstrations not only in China but also in South Korea, suggests that the historical dimension in the regional and international politics of the Northeast Asia is still deeply embedded in the popular psyche.

It is also evidenced in the almost simultaneous high-profile and highly emotional visit to China by Lien Chan, the chairperson of Taiwan's mainstream opposition party China Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party).

He reaffirmed his party's opposition to Taiwan's independence. The symbolic significance of his visit was underlined by the fact that it was an invitation extended by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

How does history intervene in the contemporary political, diplomatic and military decision-making process in Northeast Asia? How much of the apparently historical dimension is genuine?

To explore these questions, malaysiakini recently conducted an email interview with Professor Wang Gungwu ( photo ), the director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore since 1996.

Wang, 74, obtained his first degree from the University of Malaya then located in Singapore, and his doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

He taught at the University of Malaya (in Singapore, 1957-59; in Kuala Lumpur, 1959-1968), where he was Dean of Arts (1962-63), and Professor of History (1963-68). From 1968 to 1986, he was Professor of Far Eastern History in the Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University. During that period, he was also Director of the Research School for five years. In 1986, he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, a post he held until the end of 1995.

Malaysiakini: What are the causes of the recent outbreak of widespread and sometimes violent anti-Japan sentiments and activities in mainland China and the Korean Peninsula?

Wang Gungwu: There are many Koreans and Chinese (and Japanese as well) who are alarmed by the rise of nationalist hardliners in the ruling party in Japan. They feel that conservative Japanese leaders, for all their general apologies and expressions of regrets, have never been sincerely sorry for the terrible things the Japanese military did in the war and throughout their occupation of territories around Asia during the first half of the 20th century. Matters like revising history textbooks regularly to minimise Japanese atrocities and highlighting the importance of the Yasukuni shrine provide many with a measure of the steady return to power of such groups.

In addition, 2005 is an anniversary year, the 60th since the end of World War II, that stirs memories, and the recent Japanese assertions about their claims to offshore islands are reminders that Japanese power could well be exerted again beyond the shores of their four main islands. For others, the thought of seeing Japan elevated to the UN Security Council as a permanent member was also unthinkable. Taken together, they have aroused strong feelings, and there is no reason to doubt that the expressions of such feelings would have been spontaneous.

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