As we awaken to alarm bells that this year has the potential to be transformative—a pandemic, a jolt to energy markets amidst climate change, the arrival of 5G, and far-reaching domestic political realignment—we should not lose sight of historical memories poised to be revived in a year of commemorations. Should 2020 be seen as a turning point to a new era to replace the post-Cold War era of the past three decades, how might narratives of two earlier milestones in world history matter—1945 when WWII ended and 1990 at the conclusion of the Cold War? To try to answer this question, let us consider three of the building blocks of the era that may be expiring: the continuously strengthening bonds between China and Russia; the ever-tightening ties between the United States and Japan; and the successful balancing of Sino-South Korean relations in a fraught regional environment. In search of clues to whether these bilateral arrangements are destined to continue or could shift as defining elements of the new era, we concentrate on Chinese and Russian narratives of what happened at the end of the Cold War, conflicting Chinese and South Korean narratives of its effects, and a Japanese understanding of the limitations of how the Cold War ended. Looming in the background in each set of historical memories are the images of 1945 in this anniversary year.  

History has added meaning in 2020 as countries prepare to commemorate the end of the world war that reshaped international relations in Asia. The legacy of 1945 continued to resonate 45 years later as the Cold War was ending. One might have expected the principal changes to be in Russo-US, Sino-US, North-South Korean, Russo-Japanese, or Sino-Japanese relations. All elicited diplomacy aimed at transforming a troubled past, but it had become clear by 2020 that the end of the Cold War was not so transformative in those five cases. Rather, three other relationships have arguably experienced more lasting effects: the Sino-Russian, Sino-South Korean, and US-Japanese dyads. This second group of relationships comprises: one which overcame setbacks some saw as irreversible, one that has turned into the key test for regional security after many ups and downs, and one briefly rattled but soon reaffirmed and continually growing stronger. How bilateral relations have changed is connected to how history is interpreted by both sides.

All three relationships, more than others, define the state of Northeast Asia in the critical year of 2020, which could mark the end of the post-Cold War era and the start of something new: the Sino-Russian “semi-alliance,” the Sino-ROK tug-of-war, and the Japan-US closest alliance ever. Vladmir Putin at full stride in his unbridled animosity toward the US and its world order may pursue Xi Jinping with renewed vigor at a time of worsened Sino-US relations. Moon Jae-in squeezed between Xi’s growing pressure and Donald Trump’s unilateral demands with North Korea’s fierce challenge looming could take a key decision that would rattle the regional order. Also, Abe Shinzo, despite close ties to Trump, could make an historic decision in commemorating the 75th anniversary together with Putin and/or Xi, suggestive of pursuing an autonomous foreign policy not seen since 1945. Exploration of Japanese thinking about that is worthy of our consideration, too.

In 2020, Beijing and Moscow under Xi and Putin are expected to trumpet the closest relationship they have ever had—well beyond the façade of camaraderie shown in the 1950s—insisting that history binds them together. Likewise, war memories brushed aside, this is a year Washington and Tokyo under Trump and Abe are expected to reinforce a bond without parallel in Trump’s era of unilateralism. Finally, Xi is expected to visit Seoul this year, giving a new boost to relations. Yet historical narratives suggest a different picture could emerge. Xi’s revival of ideology differs from Putin’s narrative. A showdown is brewing in the relationship between China and South Korea, as hopes for Xi to visit Seoul for a summit with Moon hang perilously even if neither Kim Jong-un nor Trump will disrupt the plan. Finally, Abe’s pursuit of Xi and Putin has historical grounding not well understood in the US.

Historical views of 1945, 1990, and 2020 are inextricably intertwined for several reasons: 1) China and Russia have put the first period at the center of their national identities and made the second period a focus in their assessment of how the world had gone off course, as they draw linkages pertinent to policy options today; 2) South Korea has prioritized resolving the anomalous situation of North Korea, which cannot be done without reconceptualizing how the three periods are connected; and 3) however much the US would prefer to ignore historical linkages and Japan would like to have the freedom to raise them internally without pressure, there is no way of avoiding the attention to be drawn to them in 2020 elsewhere in Asia.

Three bitter confrontations shaping the evolution of East Asia reverberate in writings in recent years. The Japan-US clash culminating in WWII, the Sino-ROK clash resonating from the Korean War, and the Sino-Soviet clash altering the trajectory of the Cold War have left a legacy worth reexamining as we enter the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII with fresh reminders of how inconclusively the Cold War ended in East Asia. The 70th anniversary in 2015 was marked in ways that may foretell what to expect: Abe’s August 15 statement and meetings in Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor with Obama; Xi’s celebrations with Putin in Red Square and Tiananmen; and Park Geun-hye’s awkward appearance on the dais with Xi on September 2. What should we expect as an encore, when Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, and Moon Jae-in have all entered the scene?

Narratives of the period 1989-91, on the surface, gave a major boost to three, key bilateral relationships of the post-Cold War era. Sino-Russian relations are steeped in consensus on the wrongheadedness of US triumphalism about those events and how they altered the results of the world order established at the end of WWII. Japan-US relations were strengthened by the shared understanding of the positive nature of the Soviet collapse for establishing a new order of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific and beyond. Finally, Sino-ROK relations are reinforced by the perceived agreement on achieving peace and stability in an economically integrated Northeast Asia. Each of these fundamental understandings about the past has smoothed over tensions at times over the past three decades, but as we enter a new decade and countries are also looking back to 1945 on this anniversary year, it is time to ask if these shared narratives will suffice or if there are alternative stories of past turning points that could have a transformative impact.

Sergey Radchenko, “Putin and Xi Eye the Soviet Collapse”

1945 has significance as the crowning glory of the Soviet system now separable from its communist trappings and the steppingstone to the communist revolution in China, now being venerated anew. However, its meaning cannot be disassociated from today’s narratives about what happened in 1991, a watershed year leading to Moscow and Beijing drawing together as they responded to the way a triumphant United States interpreted the end of the Cold War as overturning the order they regarded as ensuring their national status and identities. Yet it also carried the seeds of a divide over how to view its signature event—the Soviet collapse, which proved traumatic both for Russian and Chinese leaders. As Russia struggled to reinvent itself as a capitalist democracy, policymakers in Beijing studied the experience of Soviet reforms in order to steer clear of the “tracks of an overturned cart,” remarks Radchenko. His article reviews the state of the current political discourse in China and Russia on the reasons for the disintegration of the Soviet Union, focusing on the recent pronouncements of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.     

While Putin is on record for regarding the Soviet collapse as the “worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” he clarified that to refer to the “humanitarian” dimension of the collapse, even if his detractors view Russia’s actual foreign policy behavior—from the 2008 war with Georgia to the 2014 annexation of Crimea; from Moscow’s projection of power to Central Asia to arm-twisting Belarus—as efforts to mitigate the effects of the “catastrophe” by rebuilding the USSR from whatever pieces may still be glued together. Although the end of the Cold War put an end to the period of Sino-Soviet confrontation, to say that the Chinese leaders in any sense regretted the collapse of the USSR would be to entirely misconstrue the nature of their concern, argues Radchenko. China’s apprehension stems from the shared roots of their modernities, given that China is structurally modelled on the Soviet Union, e.g., autonomous regions with titular nationalities parallel to Soviet republics. Fearful of reliving the Soviet experience, China has imposed ever more draconian restrictions on the Uighurs, attempting, through detention and “reeducation,” to “de-radicalize” the supposedly separatism-inclined populace. Noting that the fact that the Baltic republics were the most economically developed in the USSR did not prevent them from embracing their separatist agendas, Xi has turned away from using developmentalism
to win over minorities to implementing the most atrocious policies directed at the ethnic Uighurs, including their mass incarceration in special camps, where inmates’ “reeducation” aims to force them to abandon whatever “radical” views they may have, and learn to love the motherland. Kazakhstan serves as a powerful reminder to Chinese elites and personally to Xi that there is nothing particularly immutable about Beijing’s control of its borderlands. Unfortunately, this reminder has prompted Xi to adopt policies that will surely deepen China’s problems in Xinjiang.

Like Xi, Putin has attempted to draw policy conclusions from the Soviet experience with minorities. His key takeaway from Soviet collapse is that Russia must never again allow itself to be drawn into assigning territories to nationalities, which can only lead to further fragmentation and ultimate destruction of the “Russian people.” The challenge for him is that the modern-day Russian administrative set-up, unlike that of the Russian Empire, is a federation, which in theory should provide regions (including “ethnic” regions) with a degree of autonomy from the center. Unlike the Soviet Union, where autonomy was largely a fiction, the Russian Federation in the 1990s did yield considerable autonomy to its constituent republics to Putin’s distress, and he has worked to claw it back. Yet, Putin understands that Russia’s cohesion is still uncertain. While condemning his predecessors for engaging in nation-building projects, he has done so too, but his mythical Russia is at least as much a product of his imagination as any nation of the defunct USSR. Perhaps with an eye to adorning his national idea with viable legal guarantees, Putin has toyed with constitutional changes that would entrench Russian-ness in the increasingly diverse populace, e.g. the proposal to refer to the Russians as a “state-forming nation” which would raise its status in comparison with Russia’s other ethnic groups. Another amendment would prohibit Russia from ceding any territory to any other state with immediate consequences for Russia’s territorial dispute with Japan, while making it unconstitutional to ever return Crimea to Ukraine. Meanwhile, as a result of Putin’s empire-rebuilding effort, Ukraine and Georgia have drifted farther from Russia than at any time in recent memory, concludes Radchenko.

In reviewing the lessons of the Soviet collapse, Xi has repeatedly highlighted one particular problem that in his opinion played the most important role in this process: the loss of faith in the Soviet project. By launching his campaign against “political corruption” while also asserting control over the military, Xi addressed two of the three problems that, in his opinion, brought down the Soviet Union. The third was “thought heresy.” Neither Hu nor Jiang made the kind of systematic effort to resuscitate party ideology as witnessed under Xi, whose years in power have been characterized by an effort to impose political conformity across China, and in particular among the intellectuals who are under pressure to embrace orthodox formulations. Opposed to Soviet-style “historical Nihilism,” Xi understands that the figure of Mao is too closely bound up with the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and that the Party has generally failed to develop a narrative that could safely disconnect it from its tragic past. Absent this, Xi fears, the party could collapse like the Soviet Communist Party did thirty years ago.

If Xi appears to believe that the USSR crashed because the Soviet elites lost their faith in Lenin and Stalin, Putin has a very different explanation. He knows that it failed because it could not compete with the West in the quality of life. There is then a curious mismatch between Putin and Xi’s views of what could have saved the USSR. Where Xi perceives a loss of faith in party ideals, Putin sees a failure of macro-economic policy. Where Putin appeals to China’s experience of reform and opening, Xi trumpets defunct revolutionary ideals. This mismatch is understandable. Whatever Putin is, he certainly is not a Marxist-Leninist. He does not draw on the Soviet ideology for legitimacy. The Soviet ideology is dead, and it died years before the limping monstrosity of the Soviet state finally breathed its last. Mikhail Gorbachev launched perestroika precisely because he understood that the Soviet project had run aground. It had to be rescued with new ideas and new policies. These policies in the end simply did not deliver, leading to a deep economic crisis and financial insolvency that brought Gorbachev down and wrecked the Soviet state. Putin is broadly right: it was not the denial of socialism that undermined the USSR; it was instead the denial of economic realities by the Soviet leaders that brought their country to the brink of disaster by the mid-1980s. Gorbachev, with poorly thought-out policies, brought it over the edge. This outlook on a key moment of the past is not Xi’s.

Deng Xiaoping reportedly called Gorbachev an “idiot” for prioritizing politics over economics. Gorbachev, by contrast, believed that Deng’s emphasis on economic reform while ignoring calls for political change, would lead China down a blind alley. In 1989, with much of China aflame, Gorbachev seemed more “right.” “I do not want the Red Square to look like the Tiananmen Square,” the Soviet leader told his entourage on May 15, 1989, after he witnessed first-hand the unfolding revolutionary chaos. Deng’s decision to crack down on the demonstrators brought chaos to an abrupt end, but it left China a global pariah, shunned by all. Gorbachev’s USSR, though increasingly insolvent, at least projected an image of democratic hopefulness. But that hopefulness proved insufficient for saving the Soviet Union from its abrupt and bitter end.

China, in the meantime, recovered from its isolation and began its astonishing sprint to the ranks of an economic superpower. But great wealth and glory have not translated into a renewed sense of security. If the mighty USSR crashed so suddenly and unexpectedly despite all appearances and in defiance of most predictions, could not the same thing happen to China, which shares some of the Soviet DNA? Troubled by historical analogies but determined not to repeat the sad history of Soviet demise, Xi trudges on down a familiar road of repression, surveillance, and indoctrination, a road littered with overturned carts, Radchenko starkly warns. 

Does the split in thinking over the ideological factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union have any bearing on the shared identity expressed over 1945 and on the future of Sino-Russian relations? It may if Xi’s renewed commitment to ideology first is accompanied by the blinders associated in the past with communist regimes that led to arrogance, inflexibility, and the Sino-Soviet split. Alternatively, Russians focused more on economic causality could redirect foreign ties to boost growth if the Chinese bounty is fading. For now, shared thinking about history easily outweighs differences; so no major impact from divergent narratives about the Soviet collapse is foreseen. 

Gilbert Rozman, “Sino-ROK Relations on the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II”

At times, such as when Park Geun-hye stood beside Xi Jinping at the parade in honor of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, it appeared that history would not be a barrier to closer Sino-South Korean ties. At other times, ancient history interfered with relations. The most persistent history theme was shared resentment against Japan for its aggression and occupation lasting to 1945. Often lost as these historical issues flared were differences in how China and South Korea interpreted the end of the Cold War and their impact on relations. Memories of both 1949 and 1950—the one just celebrated as the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC and the other also to be recognized in 2020 as finalizing the arrival of the Cold War in Asia with a hot war—are unavoidably mixed with the 75th commemoration. Narratives over four periods, especially in China, are covered here. In the 1990s, Beijing was passive and Seoul confident; in the 2000s, Beijing was pushy and Seoul guarded; in the 2010s, Beijing was aggressive and Seoul anxious; and in the late 2010s, Beijing went on the offense and Seoul needed to pay close attention.

Despite shared narratives about Japan’s perfidy, Chinese and South Korean accounts of the 1945-53 period are deeply contradictory. They differ in their assessments of the roles of the US, the Soviet Union, and North Korea, and of their respective roles in the Korean War. In dealing with the US, Russia, and Japan, the three countries most central for its national identity, and North Korea, its foremost partner in socialism, China found it impossible to avoid South Korea. It was a lynchpin in the development of a strategy for the post-Cold War period. Yet, until the end of the 1990s the shortcomings of how the Cold War ended would not be stressed in China.

The key difference cited in China by 2010 was not realist thinking on power, but consciousness shaped by textbooks and the media and conveyed in the writings of its Korea experts. A book on Chinese views traces the evolution from “honeymoon” to “Korean wave” to “hate Korea” by 2009. Older generations kept a negative outlook centering on history and were not impressed by the “Korean Wave” after 1999. The Koguryo dispute from 2003 led to focus on emotionalism versus China. Acknowledging here too that history and culture were the source of worsening views of relations, including Chinese anger that Koreans are stealing China’s cultural heritage, one book points to a fundamental gap in thinking. Chinese are upset with uppity Korea, as if it were a great power, showing arrogance and posing a civilizational challenge. Deference is now demanded, based on changed Chinese confidence and even a Sinocentric view of how the long-time vassal should behave, instead of giving offence with a condescending view of China’s past. Such Chinese sources consider South Korean views of history a problem: anti-China, infected by Western thinking, and emotional. The gap over the Korean War and the revolutionary bond between the communist forces in China and North Korea is the irreconcilable factor that could no longer be overlooked is the conclusion I draw from Chinese sources on the end of the 2000s.

The arrival of Lee Myung-bak in China in May 2008 accompanied a change in tone in Chinese sources. The expectations for Seoul’s behavior had shifted under Roh and perhaps in Beijing with Xi Jinping now on the Political Standing Committee: China could not be excluded on North Korean issues by ROK-US cooperation; peninsula “peace” was not secondary to denuclearization; and Lee had to show that he was not reverting to leaning to the US, which he failed to do when he visited the US first and reinforced relations. In 2010, rather than Seoul’s anger at Beijing’s refusal to blame North Korea, the more significant impact of the Cheonan sinking was China’s decision not only to blame the ROK for responding with increased military cooperation with Washington, which was seen as really directed at China using North Korea as a pretext, but to treat this as the decisive security betrayal against which China had been warning. Relations were then said to be in trouble over four factors: 1) North Korea, 2) history, 3) trade, and 4) a maritime territorial dispute. Three of the four pertain to the way China revealed a worldview rooted in its lingering Cold War thinking. North Korea provoked, South Korea turned to the US, and China blamed South Korea not North Korea in what should be perceived as a transformative moment.

Chinese sources, after an interlude in 2014-15, turned sharply more negative on South Korea in 2016 and hardly reversed course despite the modest upturn in their relations in 2018. Recently, criticism has sharpened, broadening the range of attacks from the THAAD focus of prior years. If the Cheonan response was blamed on tilting toward the US, the THAAD response was seen as even more so at a time of rising Sino-US rivalry and in defiance of the “balance” demanded. The dialogue stage of the Korean nuclear crisis made Sino-ROK security relations urgent, especially in the face of the impasse in US-North Korean talks, for avoiding regression on the peninsula and a new regional Cold War. Thus, Seoul is urged to further clarify that it is against US alliances becoming more multilateral and that it will not participate in the US missile defense system, as it already has done by eschewing a trilateral alliance with Japan. Chinese accuse Moon of rejecting its repeated calls to work together to advance denuclearization by insisting on Seoul taking the lead and pursuing trilateralism with the US.

Deepening Sino-US competition is forcing Seoul to choose with security now standing in the forefront. Lack of trust has been a favorite Chinese mantra: the US is blamed for the lack of US-DPRK trust, and South Korea is faulted for the deficit in Sino-ROK trust. Economic ties are seen as necessary but insufficient for trust; security is the touchstone for proving one’s trust. Given the worsening situation in the region now due to DPRK-US and Sino-US tension, the burden is on Seoul to prevent a new Cold War by boosting security ties to Beijing. The opening of the diplomatic track with Pyongyang in 2018 was a game changer, not because denuclearization was in sight, but because China’s main objective for the region could now be openly pursued: the transformation of regional security focused on Seoul.

Xi’s orientation toward the Korean Peninsula can best be called Sinocentric. It has a strong dose of historical consciousness, blaming “myths” generated in South Korea since 1945; reacting against charges of Chinese hegemonism; charging that it is South Korea that has a Cold War mentality as if China could never reconcile to its thinking that carried over after 1992; and while pretending that China is not opposed to the US-ROK alliance treating it as a Cold War relic. Instead of acknowledging that China has upped its demands on South Korea as China’s power has grown, all the blame is put on Seoul for: not accepting China’s rise, having illegitimate great power aspirations, and being the real challenger to the regional order while blaming China. Seoul could go astray in at least three ways. It could take the wrong line on the denuclearization process, as it did in 2008. Seoul could also cross a red line, it seems, if it were to backtrack on the “three nos” Moon approved in 2017 and agree to US multilateral alliance or missile defense appeals. Finally, despite approval for Moon’s role in facilitating the diplomacy in 2018, Chinese fault him—almost as if he has committed another THAAD-like error—for the way he has proceeded since then by prioritizing a three-way framework, excluding China.

New pressure on Moon implies that Seoul is the swing country key to shaping the future of Northeast Asia through its choice in the very near future. Its hopes in 2018 were an illusion, which irritated China, but now it risks serious retaliation if it were to make the wrong moves. To avoid such responses, South Korea should boost security ties, accept China’s rise and the concept of a shared future, and no longer delay its choice. The time has come to forge strategic trust through policy shifts toward China, North Korea, and the US is the message being delivered.

From stage to stage, Chinese grew more demanding on Seoul’s stance on great power relations, Seoul’s posture toward North Korea, and Seoul’s views on history. Yet obfuscation persisted on four critical issues: the Korean War, which scarcely has been mentioned; the acceptability of the ROK-US alliance, often treated as if might be able to persist; the relationship between “stability” in North Korea and denuclearization; and Sinocentrism, as if the only problem is unjust ROK warnings against Chinese hegemonism. Also obscured was the degree to which perceptions of South Korea in each stage were due not to ROK provocations but to overall shifts in Chinese attitudes on four other matters: on China’s own identity and role in the region and the world; on Sino-US relations and views of US power; on the prospects for North Korea and its willingness to engage; and, on occasion, on Japan and Russia. These ranked as higher priorities; treatment of South Korea often was derivative of other Chinese policies, but that may be less true today.

Togo Kazuhiko, “Japan-US relations with extension to Japan’s ties to Russia and China”

In 2020 Abe Shinzo is hoping to move beyond the periodic ritual of a prime ministerial statement, long waited for evaluations of the degree of apology or signs of historical revisionism. With Donald Trump indifferent to such matters, Xi Jinping intent on boosting his personal ties to Abe, Vladimir Putin maintaining his personal connection, and Moon Jae-in discredited in the eyes of many for overdoing his demonization of Japan, Abe stands a good chance of being able to downgrade the annual statement on August 15. Attention may focus instead on the Tokyo Olympics or their cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic amidst an economic battering.

The lessons learned by the Japanese people were: do not repeat this devastating defeat and keep the peace; since pre-war policy was guided by autocratic militarism, new democratic government is preferred; preservation of the emperor means civilization is not endangered; and the people’s energy needs to be directed for daily work and economic reconstruction. This was the meaning of 1945, which remains overwhelmingly popular today. The Yoshida Doctrine aimed to keep Japan fundamentally pacifist, so the people’s energy would be primarily directed to economic reconstruction, leaving minimal ability for self-defense and letting US troops defend Japan against any communist threat. This established the foundation for the entire Cold War period. While the US generally welcomed conservative goals for rejuvenation, Japanese aspirations to end what was perceived as an abnormal postwar period posed challenges for bilateral relations. The Cold War became defined as Washington pressing Tokyo for more military support and more market openness, while Tokyo grudgingly yielded on some matters. The “Ron-Yasu” relations marked the high point of relations during the Cold War. Japanese largely have positive memories of such closeness and accord, but they anticipated something better: a larger voice, greater equality, a leadership role in Asia, and room to establish an identity as a great power.

As for Tokyo and Moscow, the Cold War was fundamentally a time of hostility between the two, but Japan had aspirations for a breakthrough. Recurrent hopes for a turnaround in relations were indicative of how the Cold War era left Japanese uneasy about unrealized national identity ideals. Hopes lingered into the post-cold war years that Moscow would agree to an island deal while relations would finally give Tokyo the room to maneuver and identity boost that was envisioned. 

From 1972, Japan’s energy as status-quo challenger shifted toward China. Hopes centered on culminating Japan’s “reentry into Asia,” forging an “East Asian community,” putting history issues behind, and gaining equality with the US. Even with the abrupt end of the Cold War coming simultaneous to China’s use of force at Tiananmen and alienation from the West, Japanese anticipated that the hopes raised for transition away from the postwar order were within reach. They looked back on that order as merely transitional, poised for change under the right international conditions. Seeking to become a bridge between China and the US while building on its close economic ties across Asia and with some signs it could be a cultural magnet there, Japan expected in the post-Cold War period to realize goals long postponed as a key great power.

The past thirty years have led to retrospection about dashed hopes or missed opportunities. At times there has been talk of US unfairness in economic agreements at the root of “two decades of stagnation.” Blame has been put on faulty diplomacy failing to get a breakthrough with Moscow when openings existed. Some progressives have charged that provocative moves such as visits to the Yasukuni Shrine have interfered with building trust with China or that sticking too close to the US has entangled Japan in divisive policies reviving polarization. Yet much of the criticism centers on Japanese leadership, failing to reform in a timely fashion, becoming too unstable to generate real initiatives, and stuck in old ways of thinking in the face of assertive new leaders.

The post-Cold War era is not appraised favorably although until 2020 at least Abe drew praise as a different kind of leader: proactive in summitry with other leaders, intent on bringing stability to Japanese politics, and even visionary in addressing security matters. Few Japanese have traced the troubles of the past three decades to what was decided as a result of defeat in 1945 or how the end of the Cold War was interpreted, although triumphalism was absent in in the early 1990s for multiple reasons. There has been a reluctance to accept Japan’s limited clout in 2020 as in 1990.

Looking back to the 1990s, security-minded Japanese were preoccupied with making amends with the US over security, especially as concerns about China and North Korea emerged, even after trade tensions ended. Recovery from the trauma of not being seen as playing a responsible role in 1991 was on their minds. Moving beyond the Cold War has meant becoming a fuller partner of the US while also gaining more space to shape regional policies, albeit with less of a leadership role than was anticipated in the 1990s and a more active security alliance than seemed possible. In the three years of Trump’s presidency, Abe strengthened relations based on credible policy implementation and an uncanny ability of communication with Trump few other leaders could or would manage. This seems to have given him space to implement foreign policies when positions of the two sides differed. Togo anticipates that this bodes well for initiatives ahead.

As for Russia, despite expectations peaking in 1991-92, Japan failed to build a bond to transform the bilateral relationship with implications for the regional power balance. If this had happened, the end of the Cold War would be perceived in a very different light. A deal arguably capable of redefining the post-Cold War era for the 2000s failed to be realized. Again, an opportunity arose to change via one dramatic breakthrough the tenor of an era when Japan was newly beleaguered in Northeast Asia and increasingly dependent on US regional policy, but Putin did not reciprocate Abe’s moves, whether because of hardening national identity, a different calculus about the desired balance of power, or a dismissive view of Japan as a worthy great power partner. The post-Cold War offered no relief here, just as aspirations during the Cold War era had been dashed.

Japan-China relations have swung wildly over three decades, notes Togo. The 1990s gave hope that Japan had found a partner for an independent regional leadership role. Tensions in East Asia mostly appeared manageable; regionalism was on the upswing. Yet there was a fundamental disconnect given China’s use of the “history card,” distrust of the Japan-US alliance, and refusal to accept a leadership role for Japan in East Asia. The 2000s witnessed a holding operation, seen at first to be blocked by a single history issue, but not overcome for long when that issue was no longer on the table. The 2010s were most troubled with a widening set of challenges until late in the decade Abe and Xi rebooted relations with economics in the forefront. Xi’s official visit that was postponed from April 2020 promised to test whether ties have reached a sustainable level in the face of many limitations in Japan-China relations. The decade of the 2010s left deep doubts about whether adverse relations could be avoided, perhaps even revving the Cold War bipolarity that had limited Japan’s active diplomacy for so long, but Abe’s testing of Xi Jinping survives.

Abe stands at a foreign policy crossroads. Despite the fact that he conducted 27 summits with Putin and might have already crossed the Rubicon to make a concessionary proposal on the territorial problem, peace treaty negotiations under a new format starting from January 2019 have not yielded any positive results. If Abe can find a strategy to place a breakthrough of Japan-Russia relations in the strategic interest of both, there might be a slight opportunity of producing something meaningful for the future. If not, the alternative is a slow death from which successors to Abe may not be able to recover for a long time, warn Togo. For Abe to go in May without such progress could be interpreted in Washington much as Park Geun-hye’s 2015 attendance on the podium in Tiananmen was, particularly if Putin were to use the occasion to present 1945 in a manner at odds with both US and Japanese narratives. 1945 figures greatly in this relationship.

Abe has done a lot to pull the Japan-China downward spiral upwards. But Xi’s current soft approach is based on his strategic calculations. Both on historical memory issues, including Yasukuni, and on geopolitical interests, including the territorial problem around the Senkakus, China and Japan are far from reaching agreement. Xi might even open fire on these issues in Moscow or four months later when he presumably hosts Putin in Beijing, warns Togo, adding that if Abe is not able to strategize Japan’s position for coexistence with China without damaging his relations with the United States and Xi is not willing to create an opportune atmosphere, then recent friendly relations may just be a short-time experience before the downward spiral resumes.

The post-Cold War period has been defined by strong Japan-US relations, troubled Japan-Russian relations, and vacillating Japan-China relations. 2020 may reinforce those trends, sustaining the special bond between Abe and Trump but dooming Abe’s quest for a breakthrough with Putin and further upward momentum with Xi. In that case, reinforced by the commemorative events from May to September 1990 would not have been much of a watershed for Japan and 2020 would punctuate the trends that followed. Alternatively, if Abe calculates that Japan’s national interest lies in closer strategic relations with Russia while seeking a path for coexistence with China and striving to maintain alliance relations with the US, the outcome would be the end of an era. Navigating such a turnabout in great power relations would not be a simple task. The prospect of marginalization in a world where three great powers are caught in intensified rivalry may awaken Japanese to aspirations to play a more active role and assess the past 75 years as a transition to national revival as an autonomous power, leaning to the US but not solely that.