China uses WWII history against rival Japan for power, but cooperation could be the better lesson.
By Börje Ljunggren*
China and Japan each commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War – how the two countries marked the occasion not only showed their differing perspectives of history but how they view the future.
For Japan it was time to move on. Given his personal conviction, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went surprisingly far in his speech on August 14 atoning for Japan’s role, but seeking to leave the war behind and prepare for Asia’s new challenge.
President Jinping Xi did the opposite – not by criticizing Abe´s Japan directly for not “recognizing history,” but by giving the commemoration unprecedented assertive grandness. I served in China in 2005 and can hardly remember commemorations for the 60th anniversary taking place inside the Great Hall of the People. Last year, after 69 years, September 3 was made a national holiday – a day, in Xi’s words, “etched in the memory of the people all over the world.” The Chinese people had “crushed the plot of the Japanese militarists to colonize and enslave China” preserving “China’s 5,000 year old culture and upholding the cause of peace of mankind.”
For the first time a huge military parade marking the anniversary was staged, manifesting China’s rise and promoting an image of Xi being China’s most authoritative military commander since Mao and Deng.
The guests who attended and those who stayed away helped underline China’s political clout as well as the disquiet provoked among many. Invitations had been extended to 51 countries, and all except the Philippines and Japan accepted. The Philippines abstained because of its tense relationship due to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. For Japan’s Abe, accepting the invitation was, as expected, considered too much of a political risk. The government conveyed regrets with reference to the “situation in parliament.” In a sadly ironic coincidence, Abe’s security legislation that would reinterpret Japan’s pacifist constitution and smooth the way for its military to fight in defence of allies was on the table. Japan’s former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama was present in his personal capacity. In 1995, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary, Murayama had made the most comprehensive apology expressed by any Japanese leader.
Only one leader of an Allied country, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, attended the celebrations. France was represented by its foreign minister and Britain by a former justice minister, the United States just by its ambassador to China and so was the European Union. Putin’s presence would have been reason enough for other Allied leaders not to attend, the nature and projection of China’s rise being additional reasons for not be seen as lending support.
Both South Korean President Park Geun-hye and North Korea’s Choe Ryong Hae, secretary of the Central Committee of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, attended. Not only is China South Korea top trading partner, friendship with China is a key stabilizing factor in South’s conflict with erratic North Korea.
For years, China’s government had described the Nationalists as enemies of the people who did little to defend China. Credit for the war effort went to the Communist Party alone, more specifically to Mao, and according to this narrative, Japan’s aggression was secondary.
But for this celebration, “the great renewal of the Chinese nation” was the centrepiece, and the role of the Nationalist Army was recognized in an unprecedented positive way – all in the spirit of the Communist Party’s increasingly nationalistic definition for itself. Taiwan was not represented but Lien Chan, honorary chairman of the Kuomintang, attended in his personal capacity.
Beijing wanted to interpret the international presence as evidence that the western world had abandoned a Eurocentric view of the history of the war and recognized the Asian theater. Already prior to the event the Global Times noted the large attendance showed “worldwide recognition of China’s growing strength, as well as its legitimacy in building the world order.” Xi expressed gratitude to those “who supported and assisted the Chinese people in resisting aggression,” but did not recognize the crucial role of the United States and other Allies in breaking Japan’s determination to pursue the war.
China has ample reasons to be proud of its role in defeating Japan. Despite immense destruction and suffering, the country held out for eight long years, the first four, from 1937 to 1941, on its own, and later with critical assistance from the Soviet Union. Rana Mitter of the University of Oxford gives due recognition to China’s role in the war in his ground-breaking 2013 book, Forgotten Ally – China’s World War II, 1937-1945. China did not defeat the Japanese, but played a crucial role in the war by tying up 600,000 Japanese soldiers who otherwise could have been sent to other theaters of war.
According to Mitter, not less than 14 million Chinese died while the number of internal refugees amounted to more than 80 million, one fifth of the entire population. Historian John Dower comes to similar conclusions in his book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Second World War. In his speech Xi stated that “China suffered over 35 million casualties” (dead and wounded) while “the Soviet Union lost more than 27 million lives.”
Mao regarded the defeat of the Japanese as one of his foremost achievements, and China long glossed over that most of the fighting was done by the Nationalist army consisting of some 2 million men, often in collaboration with warlords. In 1936, after the Long March, communist forces amounted to just 50,000. In 1945 the number had grown to 800,000, strategically engaged in guerrilla warfare in northern China. Mao’s strategy was to avoid direct major confrontation with the Japanese army and bide his time. Only one-tenth of the losses were suffered by the Communist side. The war gave, again quoting Mitter, “birth to Mao’s China.”
Japan’s expansion and Hitler Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 dramatically changed the geopolitics of the war. Suddenly, China mattered in the gobal anti-fascist context, and the nation joined the United States, Russia, Britain and others as an Ally, though not fully acknowledged as such. President Chiang Kai-shek attended the Allied Cairo meeting in the fall of 1943, but was not invited to Yalta in February 1945 and was not even informed about the Allied agreement to have Soviet troops enter the war in Asia three months after Nazi Germany’s capitulation. Still, China became one of the five permanent members of the Security Council of the UN from the outset in October 1945.
Today, China undisputably is a major, increasingly restless power, and the complex global power shift we are witnessing is of grave concern to Tokyo as well as to Washington. Sino-Japanese relations are comprehensive but equally distrustful, with the territorial conflict over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands intractable.
Both China and Japan, as well as the rest of the world, have much to gain from enhanced cooperation, but the bitter history is not likely to come to rest. The drama will continue unfolding with competition for power and influence.
*Borje Ljunggren is a former Swedish ambassador to China and author. Ljunggren’s most recent book, Den kinesiska drömmen – utmaningar för Kina och världen (The Chinese Dream – Challenges for China and the World) was published in spring 2015.