How can you get under the skin of an Asian country? Diplomatic body searches, bomber flights, shrine statues and even doormats have set governments on edge.
Here’s a nation-by-nation look at Asia’s figurative, and in one case literal, sacred cows:
South Korea takes offense first, and most regularly, with Japan, largely over disputes stemming from Tokyo’s 35-year colonization of the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century.
But President Donald Trump has proven surprisingly good at pushing buttons in Seoul in recent months.
During his campaign, Trump suggested that the United States would let South Korea defend itself from North Korean aggression if Seoul didn’t pay more for the stationing of 28,500 American troops in the country. He also described a 2012 bilateral free trade agreement that was portrayed as a major landmark as killing American jobs.
Fewer or no U.S. boots on the ground and calls for re-negotiating the trade accord would raise serious questions for many in South Korea about the decadeslong military alliance between the countries that was forged in the bloodshed of the Korean War.
And then there’s Seoul’s northern rival. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un staged two nuclear tests and a string of ballistic missile test-firings last year. There’s always the fear a direct attack like the deadly 2010 shelling of a South Korean island. Another attack will likely trigger retaliatory strikes by the South, which has grown tired of Pyongyang’s repeated provocations.
Japan regularly infuriates Seoul when senior politicians visit a shrine that honors war dead including convicted criminals; when Tokyo renews claims to disputed islets; and when officials approve history textbooks that Seoul believes whitewash Japan’s wartime aggression.
Indians have long been known as a touchy bunch, so much so the makers of last year’s blockbuster sequel “Independence Day 2” reportedly excluded all Indian landmarks from the scenes of mayhem and devastation wrought by the movie’s invading aliens.
In some cases, Indians have been so easily offended that it’s taken everyone else by surprise, such as when a superbug discovered in New Delhi was named after the Indian capital, or when an Indian diplomat was subjected to a routine body search when arrested in 2013 for allegedly mistreating her Indian maid in New York City.
When the world was celebrating the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson particle, some Indians griped that all the credit was going to British physicist Peter Higgs while the world was ignoring Indian scientist Satyendranath Bose whose work in the 1920s helped define the subatomic boson particle named after him.
In recent years, many in Hindu-dominated India have been perceived to be intolerant of criticism against Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as their religion. Self-appointed “cow vigilantes” have attacked villagers suspected of killing cows, considered sacred in Hinduism and yet a vital source of income for many Muslims. When former President Barack Obama in 2015 urged greater tolerance and harmony in India’s multicultural society, he was derided for taking a shot at India’s dignity.
Last week, Amazon.com Inc. pulled doormats depicting the Indian flag from its Canadian retail website after the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj threatened to deny Indian visas to Amazon employees if the company did not apologize and withdraw the product.
Protests erupted a year ago after doormats depicting Hindu gods were sold online. There were also reports that India’s independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi was featured on flip-flops in what many Indians view as disrespectful.
British rock band Coldplay triggered anger with a music video on India that showed stereotypical images of the country with Hindu holy men, peacocks and colorful festivals. Critics argued that it ignored the vast changes in the country following the economic boom that has transformed the face of Indian cities and towns.
In 2008, Danny Boyle’s multiple-Oscar winning film, “Slumdog Millionaire” also faced similar criticism for its portrayal of poverty and corruption in India.
The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2016
No issue is perhaps more sensitive and important to China than the status of Taiwan and Trump thrust the issue into the spotlight weeks before his inauguration by taking a congratulatory phone call from the island’s president.
That led Beijing to reiterate the one-China principle that has underpinned China-U.S. relations since they were normalized in 1979. While China is keeping its powder dry for now, further moves to bestow legitimacy on the island’s government or offer it big arms packages and other forms of support would like draw a furious response.
China has also been irked over recent U.S. comments on the South China Sea, particularly its building of man-made islands equipped with airstrips and military defenses. Despite the construction, Beijing intensely dislikes accusations of militarizing the sensitive region, which it claims virtually in its entirely. However, the issue appears significantly less volatile now than last summer, when China was incensed by an international arbitration ruling invalidating its maritime claims.
Economic concerns remain foremost for the leadership and officials have responded to complaints from Trump and others over alleged unfair trade practices by again arguing against restrictions on the export of sensitive U.S. technologies, along with growing negative sentiment against Chinese investment in economies overseas that keep companies such as communications giant Huawei out of the U.S. market.
And as always, China is prone to lash out against all criticism of its policies toward political dissidents and ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Although just about anything that the United States does can be counted on to push North Korea’s buttons – and be used by the regime to whip up popular anti-U.S. sentiment – one thing the U.S has started doing with more regularity lately hit an especially sore nerve.
Because of the massive, wide-scale destruction caused by bombing during the Korean War, which essentially flattened the very vulnerable Pyongyang, flights by U.S. long-range bombers like the B-52 not only get the regime’s attention but do seem to cause genuine anger and anxiety.
Such flights have become a more common response following North Korean nuclear tests or other military activities seen by Washington as particularly provocative. They have the added benefit of reassuring American allies Japan and South Korea, but at the same time underscore the vast gap in perceptions between the United States, where the 1950-53 fighting on the Korean Peninsula is known as the “forgotten war,” and in North Korea, where it was a defining an extremely brutal chapter in the nation’s history.
Australia’s hard-line stance on asylum seekers has frayed ties with its neighbor and close ally Indonesia, and drawn global condemnation from human rights groups. Under Australia’s policies, asylum seekers from Asia, the Middle East and Africa who arrive by boat, usually from Indonesian ports, are sent to grim detention camps in remote Pacific island nations and are refused settlement in Australia. Any boats intercepted at sea are turned back or sunk, with their passengers and crews sent to Indonesia in life boats. The turn-back policy has caused friction with Indonesia, which was especially rankled after reports emerged that the Australian navy paid people smugglers to return a boat of migrants to Indonesian waters.
A “comfort women” statue is currently the hottest button between Japan and South Korea.
The statue of an anonymous Asian-faced girl is supposed to represent all the women across Asia and from The Netherlands who were the victims of sexual abuses by Japanese wartime military. It is part of Seoul’s campaign to gain global sympathy for its suffering under the Japanese colonial rule, just as Japan has increasingly pushed back from its earlier recognition of responsibility.
Also reflecting Seoul’s deep-rooted colonial-era enmity is a statue of South Korean patriot Ahn Jung-Geun, who assassinated Japan’s former top official in Korea, Hirobumi Ito, in 1909.
Then there are islands. Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida described as “unacceptable” the use of the South Korean name for disputed islands in the official website for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.
The website introduces the islets as Dokdo, while Japan refers to them as Takeshima. The website also refers to the waters that Japan calls Sea of Japan under the South Korean name, East Sea.
In China, a memorial hall of Nanjing that highlights the 1937 massacre by Japanese troops is a thorny issue that still divides the view between the two sides.
Story: Hyung-jin Kim, Katy Daigle, Nirmala George, Christopher Bodeen, Eric Talmadge, Kristen Gelineau, Mari Yamaguchi