China: The weapon of history

Can China and Japan agree a peaceful balance of power without the US playing policeman?

December 11, 2014
The museum of the Nanking Massacre: in 1972, Chairman Mao joked that communism in China owed its rise to the Japanese invasion. © TPG/Contributor/Getty
The museum of the Nanking Massacre: in 1972, Chairman Mao joked that communism in China owed its rise to the Japanese invasion. © TPG/Contributor/Getty

Even though Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping have shaken hands in Beijing, the tensions in east Asia are far from resolved. Ostensibly the rows between China and Japan, as well as Japan and South Korea, are about territory, the Diaoyu/Senkaku and the Tokto/Takeshima islands. These uninhabited rocks not only have some strategic importance, and potential oil reserves, but they are the symbols of supposedly unhealed historical wounds, inflicted by Japanese imperialism.

The Senkakus became an imperial possession after the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, along with Taiwan. Before that they didn’t officially belong to anyone, even though there are Chinese records of the islands dating back at least to the 15th century. After the United States returned the Ryukyu islands (Okinawa and smaller islands) to Japan in 1972, the Senkakus went with them. Sovereignty over the Tokto or Takeshima islands is an equally vexed matter. Japan claimed them after the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. South Korea believes they were always part of Korean territory.

The real reason for these disputes has more to do with the struggle for power in the region. China is busy reclaiming its ancient status as the dominant Middle Kingdom. Japan is trying hard to resist China’s rise and clings to its quasi-vassal status with the US for protection. And the Koreans are playing their ancient game of leaning this way or that, and where possible playing one great power off against another.

What we are often told, however, is that the problems in east Asia all stem from history, those unhealed wounds of war and occupation. Japan’s official ambivalence, or worse, about the history of sex slavery during the Second World War, and the continuing deference paid to the Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of soldiers who died for the imperial cause—including a number of war criminals—are enshrined, are reasons for Korea’s President Park Geun-hye to refuse a meeting with Abe, and for the Chinese to accuse Japan of militarism.

But is history really the root cause of the current tensions? There is no question that the Japanese behaved barbarously in China and other parts of Asia. And official Japanese denials of such horrors as the Nanking Massacre in 1937, or the systematic use of Asian (and some western) women who were forced to serve in Japanese imperial army brothels, are creating a great deal of bad blood. Yet I view the historical analysis with some scepticism. For hatreds, in east Asia, as well as anywhere else, tend to ebb and flow, according to political circumstances. Outbursts of popular anger over historical wrongs are almost always manipulated for political ends, mostly to do with domestic politics. And the same is true, by the way, of many expressions of Japanese nationalism.

For neither the territorial disputes, nor the fights over wartime history, were on the agenda all along. Consider, first of all, Chinese quarrels with Japan.

When Chairman Mao ruled China with a blood-smeared iron first, the Diaoyu islands were not an issue at all. He cared about consolidating his power in the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong was left alone as a potentially lucrative window to the world. Mao was not interested in disputing the islands either with the US or Japan. The same was true of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan. And even Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, wanted to shelve the issue until, as he put it, people were wise enough to deal with it sensibly.

The Nanking Massacre too—now such a powerful symbol of anti-Japanese Chinese nationalism—was of no concern to Mao. Nanking was the Nationalist capital in 1937. There were no stories of communist heroism to be used to bolster the party’s prestige. Mao’s attitude to Japan was not friendly, but he felt secure enough in his nationalist credentials to make a joke when he met Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka in Beijing in 1972 to normalise relations between the two countries. When Tanaka apologised for what his country had done to China during the war, Mao replied that no apology was needed. On the contrary, he wished to thank the Japanese Prime Minister, for without the Japanese invasion of China, the communists would not have come to power.

It was only after Mao died, and Maoism, soaked in so much Chinese blood, became discredited as an ideology, that history became such a contentious political issue. The monopoly on power of the Communist Party of China could no longer be justified plausibly by Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. And when Deng Xiaoping decided to open China’s door to trade with the capitalist world, including Japan, the legitimacy of the Leninist regime was vulnerable to domestic challenges. Attacking the government for being weak towards foreign powers has a long history in China.

And so it was in the 1980s, under Deng, that nationalism, or in official parlance “patriotic education,” began to replace communism as the ideological basis for one-party rule. The idea was that China would re-emerge as a great power and never be bullied by foreign powers again. This would only be possible under the rule of the Communist Party. Foreign powers who had humiliated China in the past were western, hence the importance of the Opium Wars in patriotic education, but enemy number one remained Japan.

China’s new nationalism is entirely based on the notion of collective humiliation by foreigners, that is to say, entirely on the memories of the last 150 years or so. This is a dangerous strain of nationalism, since it smacks of revanchism. The comparison is sometimes made between China today and Wilhelminian Germany. This doesn’t entirely work. But as far as nationalist rhetoric is concerned, there is merit in this comparison. As was true in Germany at the turn of the 20th century, the feeling is cultivated in China that hostile powers are conspiring to keep the nation down.

That is why the Chinese government protested so fiercely when it was reported in 1982, erroneously as it turned out, that Japanese textbooks had suddenly replaced the phrase “invasion of China” (in 1937) to “advance into China” and had scrapped any reference to the Nanking Massacre. This was first reported wrongly in the Asahi newspaper. Deng needed to cover himself against accusations of weakness when opening his country for business with Japan. He had to show that he was a true nationalist. And in the 1980s this meant that for the first time in China, the Nanking Massacre became a serious issue. A large museum and memorial hall were built in 1985 in Nanking. The official number of victims—300,000, a number that is disputed by serious conservative Japanese historians, as well as chauvinistic ideologues—was engraved on the granite wall.

This museum became a model for many such patriotic monuments in China, commemorating the Opium Wars, the 1931 Kwantung army takeover of Manchuria (in Shenyang), the site of human experiments by Japanese for biological warfare in Harbin, and so on. The message is always the same: never again will foreigners humiliate China, and this can only be guaranteed by permanent Communist Party rule.

The problem for the Chinese government—any Chinese government—is that anti-foreign nationalism is a risky tool, for it can so easily be turned against the government itself. The May 4th Movement in 1919 began as a protest against the Chinese government, which, in the view of Chinese nationalists, had given too much away to Japan at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. So if anti-Japanese feeling is sometimes deliberately stirred up by the Chinese regime to divert attention from domestic problems, it is a spark that must be swiftly snuffed out in case it backfires.

What about Japanese attitudes towards China? There are signs of a China obsession in Tokyo today. Bookstores are overflowing with books about the threat of China, the domination of China, the crimes of China and, wishfully perhaps, the downfall of China. Weekly magazines are filled with the same kind of stuff. Even though Prime Minister Abe talks about improving relations with his giant neighbour, something he no doubt means sincerely, his allies and cronies in the government and mass media, including the national broadcasting company NHK, talk contemptuously about “Shina,” the wartime nationalist term for China. They continue to visit Yasukuni Shrine, knowing full well that this tribute to Japan’s imperialist past upsets the Chinese and Koreans. Abe himself may avoid doing so, but he cannot pledge this to the Chinese, lest he upset the right-wing of his own Liberal Democratic Party. And there is every reason to assume that Abe agrees with revisionist views on the Second World War; that the so-called “comfort women” serving the imperial army brothels were volunteers, that the atrocities in Nanking and elsewhere were figments of Chinese and left-wing propaganda, and that Japan’s war was intentionally a war of Asian liberation.

Now, Japan’s current China obsession can partly be explained by the reasonable fear of China’s rising power, which is hardly benign towards Japan and other countries in China’s periphery. Just as China’s leaders cannot afford to look soft in the eyes of Chinese nationalists, Japan’s leaders can’t be seen to cave in too easily to China. This is the main reason why a compromise over the islands continues to be so difficult to achieve.

But, once again, I would stress the influence of domestic politics on Japanese nationalism. For Abe and his supporters are not only reacting against China, or Korea, North and South, but perhaps primarily against what is left of Japanese liberals, symbolised by the Asahi newspaper, whose influence is rapidly shrinking. As far as war memories are concerned, the liberal or Asahi view that Japan was indeed guilty of an invasion in China and accounts of massacres and forced prostitution are true, is dismissed by right-wing nationalists, including Abe, as the so-called “Tokyo Trials view” of history, referring to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal set up by the allied powers after the war.

To instil proper patriotic pride and morals in the younger generation, the Tokyo Trials view, according to nationalists, must be exorcised from Japanese textbooks, memorials and museums. This kind of revisionism, as well as visits to Yasukuni, then, are not so much aimed at China or Korea as at the Asahi-reading Japanese. To understand why, we have to return briefly to 1945 and the aftermath of the Pacific War.

In both Germany and Japan, the Allies were faced with the question of how these countries should be reformed so that future wars would become unthinkable. In Germany, the answer was fairly straightforward: Germany was a civilised European nation, which had been taken over by a criminal regime in 1933. Once the Nazis and their influence were purged, Germany could become a civilised democratic nation once more.

The Japanese case was more complicated, since there was no Hitler or Nazi Party. Wartime Japan was run by more or less the same bureaucratic elite as in the 1920s. And so blame for wartime militarism had to be placed elsewhere, in the culture itself, the samurai tradition, the cult of the divine imperial house, and so forth. While the German armed forces largely escaped from blame for the Third Reich (wrongly, as we now know, since the Wehrmacht often cooperated with the SS in mass murder of Jews and others, especially on the Eastern Front), the Japanese could no longer be trusted with any military power.

Germany became a member of Nato. Japan, in 1946, got a pacifist constitution, written by Americans, outlawing the use of armed force. Most Japanese, not only liberals, were perfectly happy with this. They were tired of war and being bullied by their own soldiers. And the business-minded conservative elite, in politics, bureaucracy and industry, was content to let the US take care of Japanese security, so Japan could concentrate on business.

The liberal-left defended constitutional pacifism by echoing the Allied view that Japan had to make amends for its barbarous war and should never go to war again. They were opposed from the beginning by a relatively small but vociferous group of conservative nationalists who resented a constitution which robbed Japan of a vital sovereign right (to wage war) and, as they saw it, of its traditional set of morals and values. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, tried to revise the constitution in the late 1950s, not because he was hostile to the US—he was not; in fact he was a staunch US ally in the Cold War—but because he wanted a more equal status for Japan.

Kishi failed in this effort. He could not muster two-thirds of the National Diet (Japan’s legislature) for a constitutional revision. But the issue never went away. Abe still wants to change the constitution, and scrap the pacifist Article 9. However, instead of arguing for this change on political grounds, it was substituted since the late 1950s by an argument about history. As long as the liberal-left defended Article 9 on the grounds that Japan had fought a criminal war, the revisionist right argued that the war was not criminal, that it was a normal war against other imperial powers, that there is nothing to apologise for, and thus no historical reason not to wield military power again.

In short, the conflicts over textbooks, Yasukuni, comfort women and official apologies are domestic conflicts among Japanese over their constitution.

Now to South Korea. Park Geun-hye’s father, Park Chung-hee, had been friendly with Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, and not only as fellow anti-communists. They had historical ties as well. Kishi was a generation older than Park. When he ran Japanese industry in the puppet state of Manchukuo quite ruthlessly, Park Chung-hee, then known as Takagi Masao, was training to be an officer in the Manchukuo imperial army. Like many, if not most, members of the Korean elite (he was from a yangban, or gentry, family) Park, or Takagi, collaborated with the Japanese empire.

Some Koreans did so out of opportunism, some out of fear, and some out of a conviction that this was the best way to modernise Korea. Opposition to Japanese rule in Korea came largely from the left. For a brief moment in 1945, it looked as though these left-liberal patriots, untainted by collaboration, might take power in both the southern and northern parts of Korea. However, when the Soviet Union installed Kim Il-song in the North, the Americans, who never trusted the Korean leftists anyway, backed dependable anti-communists in the South. This brought back many figures of the old collaborationist elite.

Park actually came to power in a military coup in 1961 and became President in 1963. He normalised relations with Japan in 1965, and to make amends for historical wrongs Japan paid reparations to the South Korean government and agreed on a variety of soft loans to support Korean industry. As far as Park was concerned, that took care of history.

Inside South Korea, however, history was never forgotten. Opposition to the military dictatorships, first under Park and later under other generals, was also opposition to the old collaborationist elites. The most famous dissident and later President, Kim Dae-jong, although personally not unsympathetic to postwar Japan, came from the province of Cholla, traditionally a hotbed of rebellion against the gentry class.

When Roh Moo-hyun, a former student activist and civil rights lawyer, became President in 2003, he went after the old elite by opening up official investigations into collaboration with Imperial Japan. This was aimed squarely against such families as Park Chung-hee’s. Hostility to Japan, then, goes hand in hand with hostility to the old ruling class in South Korea. Since Park Geun-hye has to try and do everything to distance herself from the taint of her class’s collaboration in the past, she cannot afford to be conciliatory towards Japan, especially when the Japanese prime minister is a hawkish nationalist with revisionist historical views.

For all these reasons, it will be difficult for the three countries in northeast Asia to get along. None of them presumably want a military conflict. But as we know from history, skirmishes can suddenly run out of control. There is one thing that for the time being might stop this from happening, and that is the policing role of the US, which is again part of the arrangements established after 1945.

The security system set in place in the 1950s, after Japan regained its formal independence, was analogous to the one made in Europe (to keep Germany down and Russia out). Here it was to keep Japan down and China out. Japan became a kind of vassal state to the US, as far as security was concerned, with South Korea as an only slightly more sovereign ally.

As in Europe, this was a Cold War solution. The question is whether this is now ready for revision. Isn’t it time for Japan to play a more sovereign role, become less of a vassal and more of an equal player in its own right? Unless the US continues to police east Asia forever, it is essential for Japan and China to come to a peaceful balance of power themselves. This would mean a constitutional revision in Japan, after a proper democratic debate. It is difficult to see how this could possibly be done by Japanese nationalists, such as Abe, who still cannot come to terms with the darkest pages of recent Japanese history. Which is why it is a minor tragedy, with possibly major implications, that the more liberal government under Yukio Hatoyama in 2009 and 2010, failed so miserably to steer a more independent course.

In a hamfisted way, Hatoyama tried to forge new ties with China and be less dependent on the US. He was helped in this endeavour neither by China, nor the US, nor himself. From the American point of view, there is still no alternative to the status quo, which is one reason why Hatoyama’s efforts were rebuffed. Without the continuing presence of the US military in east Asia, it is feared in Washington that China’s new aggression and Japan’s new nationalism would cause chaos and possibly war.

This fear is shared in Tokyo, which is why Abe, in spite of all his rhetoric about Japanese sovereignty, is doing everything to keep the Americans happy. And given the choice between Pax Americana and a fully sovereign, nuclear-armed Japan, China too might prefer to keep things as they are, much as it tries to drive a wedge between Japan and the US at the same time.

The US is not formally an empire. But it is faced with a familiar late imperial dilemma. After soldering particular security arrangements in place, and creating dependencies, these arrangements cannot easily be dismantled, even if they are out of date. If the US were to withdraw from east Asia too swiftly, there could indeed be chaos. But the longer it stays, the more the US will become a hindrance to its dependencies coming to new terms with other powers themselves.