America must get to know the Asia where history never really fades

Alice Wu says the health of Sino-US ties rests onan understanding of the unresolved feelings and tensions about Asia's tangled history

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 5:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 5:21am

The US foreign policy "pivot" landed US Vice-President Joe Biden in Asia last week on some smouldering rocky terrain. Well, welcome to the Asian Century!

Having regained enough of its footing after being toyed with and carved up by the owners of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, Asia is going to demand attention. Think of the "Asian Century" not as being about world dominance, but rather - finally - a proper recognition for the world's most populous continent, with all its good, bad and ugly sides. The trickiest is its history, which makes the complexities of geopolitics today even more complicated.

Gone are the days when Asians sat submissively, listening to the West preach and condemn. The pivot of American foreign policy needs to be more than a physical shift; more important is a "pivot" in attitude.

In the US, Biden is widely seen as the right man for the job. China expert Orville Schell called him "the best flight out to sort of put a face on US-China relations".

So far, so good. Discussion centred on not just China's air defence identification zone. During Biden's 5½-hour talk with President Xi Jinping , North Korea was a big issue, too. Everything is intricately and intrinsically linked, with many emotional strings attached. Biden seemed to display a sophisticated understanding and appreciation of the complexities at play in the region.

Speaking a language that focused on building relationships and trust, through meaningful and high-level "people-to-people" dialogue - and highlighting words like "candour", "constructive approaches" and "understanding the other side's perspective" - is a far cry from the description of a "strategic competitor" that needs "containment" from the George W. Bush era.

By and large, Biden took the delicate diplomatic balancing act in his stride. One exception perhaps was his call on Chinese youths to challenge the status quo, when he told a line of mostly young people waiting for visas at the American consulate in Beijing that, "The only way you make something totally new is to break the mould of what was old".

The old moulds of handling Asia are pressure cookers. This approach, where everything is thrown in a pot to cook to "save energy", doesn't work any more. The pot is breaking and the steam escaping through the cracks is raising temperatures, not least over the East China Sea.

A lot has been bottled up from before. Seventy-six years ago today, Imperial Japanese troops under the command of General Asaka Yasuhiko launched the Battle of Nanjing, the prelude to the Rape of Nanking that began on December 13, 1937. That's in the pressure cooker, as are the previous denials by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that troops forced women into sexual slavery, thus trying to obliterate the existence of comfort women from history altogether. These are just some of the grievances crying to be let out.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA