If World War III ever breaks out, its origins will not lie in the Middle East, South Asia or Eastern Europe. It is in East Asia — where the strategic interests of China, the United States, and their respective partners intersect — that the geopolitical stakes, diplomatic tensions, and potential for a global explosion are highest.
Because it is so obviously in every player’s interest to avoid outright conflict, we have stony handshakes like that between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Beijing in November. But if there is to be a genuinely durable peace, the region’s leaders need to work harder and more courageously to achieve it. Each of them could pursue game-changing initiatives if only they could summon the necessary statesmanship.
So, here — in a spirit of supreme, but perhaps not totally naive, optimism — are the 2015 New Year’s resolutions that I would most like each of East Asia’s leaders to make.
Xi Jinping: “I will make it clear that any territorial claims we have in the South China Sea are based only on reasonable assertions of sovereignty over particular land features and the rights that accompany them under the Convention on the Law of the Sea. I will stop talking about our ‘historical waters,’ and order the removal of the ‘nine-dashed’ line from the map in Chinese passports.
“Having made our authority in Hong Kong clear, I will find a way to let the people there have the local leader they want. A little flexibility here should also be a helpful message to those getting restless in Taiwan that China really can accommodate difference.
“Also in that spirit, I will welcome the Dalai Lama to Beijing and negotiate with his leadership team a package of cultural autonomy and limited self-government, satisfying once and for all the reasonable aspirations of the Tibetan people.”
Shinzo Abe: “I will invite to Hiroshima or Nagasaki on the August A-bomb anniversary all six-party talks leaders to kick-start serious negotiations on a Northeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, which will embrace Japan and both Koreas and be guaranteed by the U.S., China, and Russia.
“And I will make 2015 the year that the historical grievances between us and our neighbors are buried for good. Remembering the impact of Willy Brandt’s Kniefall at the Jewish ghetto site in Warsaw in 1970, I will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II by visiting Nanjing and accepting Japanese responsibility for the terrible massacre of 1937-1938.
“I will also do everything I can to remove from the Yushukan Museum, on the grounds of the Yasukuni Shrine, all exhibits which deny, question, or are insensitive to Japan’s responsibility for waging aggressive war and committing atrocity crimes in the 1930s and 1940s.
“I will start by removing from its pedestal the steam locomotive that ran on the Thailand-Burma “Death Railway,” the display of which dishonors the more than 100,000 prisoners of war and forced laborers who perished from disease, malnutrition or maltreatment in its construction.”
South Korean President Park Geun-hye: “I will remove the ‘May 24′ sanctions we placed on North Korea after their military provocations in 2010, because they are making impossible nearly all of the measures to build trust and confidence that I keep saying are necessary.
“Of course the North should continue to be named and shamed in the United Nations for its human-rights abuses and nuclear misbehavior. But pariah states never behave responsibly, and no state has a bigger role than we do in coaxing Kim Jong Un’s regime into normality. Serious re-engagement will be politically hard for me to deliver. But if I do not, I will be on the wrong side of history.”
North Korea’s Kim Jong Un: “I will surprise everyone by freezing our efforts to develop nuclear weapons and missiles, and I will prove my seriousness by opening our uranium enrichment plants to inspection. That will leave no one with any credible reason to delay resumption of the six-party talks.
“We have known since the 1990s that a denuclearization settlement is the best guarantee of our regime’s security. I may have image problems, but I am not crazy. China has fallen out of love with us; my people know too much about the wider world; and everyone knows that to use our handful of nuclear weapons would be suicidal. It is time to reach an agreement.”
U.S. President Barack Obama: “I will say publicly what Bill Clinton was saying privately a decade ago. It may be painful for many Americans to hear, and it will not impress my opponents. But if I can make it believable, it will do more to win the U.S. friendship, respect and ultimate security in East Asia and around the world than our trillion-dollar nuclear-weapons modernization program or all the unworkable and counter-productive missile-defense systems at which we keep hurling money.
“It is simply this: The U.S. should not use its immense military and economic power to try to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. Rather, we should be using that power to create a world in which we will be comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.”
Perhaps the idea that any of these resolutions will actually be made is fanciful. And we all know that it is in the nature of New Year’s resolutions that, even when they are made, they are rarely kept. But should any one of the resolutions on my list come to pass, the result would be momentous. Cumulatively, they would be transformative. The rest of us should hope that they are made, and kept, and we should continue nagging until they are.
Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister (1988-1996) and past president of the International Crisis Group (2000-2009), is chancellor of Australian National University. © Project Syndicate, 2014.