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Anarchic East Asia on an American Tether—and Cushion

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“Oh, the Chinese hate the Japanese and the Japanese hate the Chinese—to hate all but the right folks is an old established rule. The Koreans hate the Japanese and the Vietnamese hate the Chinese, and the North Koreans hate them all. Oh, the People hate the Communists and the Communists hate the People. The Nationalists hate the Communists and the Communists hate themselves. The Confucians hate the Buddhists and the Muslims hate them all. All of my folks hate all of your folks. But during National Brotherhood Week, be nice to people who are inferior to you. It’s only for a week, so have no fear—be grateful that it doesn’t last all year.”

These cadences, if not these words, are from Tom Lehrer’s satirical song, “National Brotherhood Week” from the early 1960s. It is remarkable that, seventy years later, most of these hatreds go back to the events of the Pacific War. That is, one of the great and seemingly unending legacies of that great war is just this: intense mutual hatred in the East Asian region. Missing from my rendering of Lehrer’s song, however, is none other than the United States, which made war in East Asia from 1941 to 1975, and during those wars hated “the Japs,” “Red China,” North Korean commies, the Viet Cong (all such hatreds nicely reciprocated by East Asians), and, by the 1980s, had even contrived to be hated by the South Koreans, too. Today anti-Americanism is as rare in the region as the days when pundits sought out the occult, mysterious source of the “Japanese miracle” or when “the Four Tigers” seemed to be sweeping the world economy before them. Here there is a Middle Eastern analogy: just as Israelis enjoy watching Shiites hate Sunnis, Arabs hate Persians, Kurds hate Turks and vice-versa, all simultaneously at each other’s throats, Americans bask in the apparent senselessness of Chinese maritime strategy, which if it were trying to unite the region under the American wing, could hardly be doing better—even Vietnamese communists now call for an alliance with their old adversary in Washington,1 and the North Koreans can’t be far behind.