Korea’s attitude toward its territorial argument with Japan is symptomatic of the central emerging strategic reality in Asia: Much of the region is passing through a sort of geopolitical identity crisis, with key regional powers determined to find a more elaborate role for themselves. Globalization and interdependence are making people nostalgic for a more secure grasp on local cultures and traditions. The result is likely to be a period whose major risks of conflict will derive less from intentional calculations of national advantage than from a boiling clash of identity, pride, prestige, nationalism, and honor.
The conventional wisdom says that the main test of American strategy in Asia is the “rise of China.” In fact, a far bigger challenge may be the growing dominance of these emotional identity issues, because traditional U.S. instruments of statecraft are simply not well suited to dealing with them. A year into the “pivot to Asia,” Washington has designed a strategy for a 21st century, Soviet-style deterrence challenge: cold, calculating, pragmatic. Yet when dealing with the psycho-social dramas of countries clashing over pride and identity as much as interests, America’s usual m.o. may not have the intended effect. Remarkably, the major strategic risk confronting the United States in Asia today may be its insistence on thinking “strategically.”