China and Japan: the struggle for supremacy in the East China Sea

History and politics are coming together in a potentially toxic fashion in the East China Sea as China, motivated by memories of Japanese wartime atrocities, agitates for dominance in the region.

A view of Canton (Guangzhou) after an aerial attack in the war
A view of Canton (Guangzhou) after an aerial attack in the war between Japan and China, 1937. Photo: Hulton-Deutsch/Corbis
The foreign ministry archives in Beijing have been hard to gain access to this summer. For some years, documents stored there have been the source of some of the most exciting new research about diplomatic relations in Mao’s China. But recently the flow of papers has diminished to a trickle. Rumours suggest that a researcher found a document from the Mao era that failed to back up Chinese claims to sovereignty over the barren islands in the East China Sea known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese and the Senkaku to the Japanese. This evidence is unlikely to make a public appearance any time soon. Meanwhile, the foreign ministry has all but closed its records as archivists hunt for other politically embarrassing papers.
 
If this were merely a dispute about scholarly access to dusty files, it would be of rather limited interest. However, the event is just one part of a much wider shift in the relationships between China, Japan and the west. The unfinished business of 1945 in east Asia is coming back to haunt the region. 
 
The signs have been there for a while. Since late last year, observers have become increasingly alarmed at the appearance of Chinese warships and Japanese fighter jets around the disputed islands. In May, two Chinese researchers published an essay in the People’s Daily – the most official of outlets – that went further than any Chinese territorial claim in the region had done so far, arguing that Ryukyu, the archipelago off the southern coast of Japan that includes Okinawa, had been ceded to Tokyo’s control in 1895 at a time of Chinese weakness at the end of the first Sino-Japanese war, and should be returned to China.
 
Meanwhile, in Japan, the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been raising the temperature on Sino-Japanese relations. In late July, in the lead-up to elections to the upper house of parliament, he declared that Japan should change the phrasing of its 1993 official apology, in which the Japanese confessed to inflicting “immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds” on the “comfort women” from China, Korea and south-east Asia used as sex slaves by the military during Second World War. He has also tried to hedge around Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, arguing that there is no clear definition of the word “invasion”. Before the election, Abe made it clear that the islands are Japan’s “unique territory, historically and in terms of international law”. Abe’s hardline stance helped his performance in the 21 July election for the upper house of the Diet; his Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide.
 
As Chinese economic and geopolitical power increases, the possibility of confrontation in east Asia is greater than at any time in the past half-century. With her declaration in 2011 of a “pivot towards Asia”, the then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, gave notice that the United States had no intention of withdrawing from the region. Through the US-Japan security alliance, the US has maintained a powerful position in the Asia-Pacific region ever since the Second World War, shielding Japan under its defence umbrella. As late as the 1980s, China chose not to raise a public fuss about the arrangements. That has changed. Chinese anger today at these agreements stems in large part from the sense that China, not the US, should be the major power in the region today. But the historical basis of that anger comes from the shared memory of Japan’s regional role during the Second World War when China was weak and vulnerable. This dynamic is now locking China, Japan and the US into a potentially toxic triangle.
 
 
The lives of others: a woman weeps in the ruins of a building after the Japanese bombing of Hankou, 1938. Photo: Robert Capa/Magnum Photos © International Centre of Photography
 
Even for generations born many years after 1945, Chinese nationalist pride is shaped by anger at Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s. In recent years, Chinese youths have continued to express anger at Japan: many of them believe that the country has never apologised fully for its actions in China during the war. In the past decade, there have been frequent demonstrations of public feeling against Japan. A news report in 2003 detailed an “orgy”, organised in a north-eastern Chinese city by Japanese businessmen who had hired Chinese sex workers. The incident led to riots in the streets because the date of the salacious events was 18 September, the anniversary of the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria, China. In 2005 rioters, including college-educated youths, surrounded the Japanese consulate in Shanghai and threw glass bottles and other missiles at the building. They were protesting at Japan’s attempt to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but the subtext of this rage was the legacy of the war. The most recent flare-up, however, has been one of the longest-sustained, and has the most potential for disaster. In summer 2012, disagreements over the islands came to a head and turned into anti-Japanese demonstrations in numerous Chinese cities. The islands may be uninhabited, but the quarrel over their ultimate sovereignty may be one of the flashpoints of east Asia in the decade to come.
 
To understand the reasons for the rising temperature in the East China Sea, we have to return to the messy way that the war ended in east Asia in 1945. At the end of the Second World War, a US-driven settlement in Europe and the North Atlantic led to relative stability for four decades. One of the reasons for this was the ability of the dominant power, the United States, to encourage or force multilateral frameworks on the region. The US understood that by binding itself into transnational organisations, it would enhance rather than reduce its own power. No such settlement ever took place in east Asia. Today the region remains an alphabet soup of unsatisfactory groupings, some more concrete than others: Asean, Apec, SCO, TPP. In practice, many of the most important relationships have remained state-to-state. As Beijing becomes an ever more important centre regionally, the balance of power in those bilateral relationships has tipped further towards China, causing greater unease in some parts of east and south-east Asia about the Chinese role. Yet another wartime legacy also figures here: because of Japan’s inability to come to a full reckoning with its wartime past, it too often acts as a catalyst to further grandstanding by China.
 

The wartime past in China’s present

 
To understand the significance of the experience of the Second World War in shaping contemporary Chinese attitudes, you just need to look closely at many of its main cities. In Nanjing, a huge combined museum and memorial commemorates the occupying Japanese army’s massacre of many thousands of Chinese civilians from December 1937 (“the Rape of Nanking”). In Chongqing, visitors are welcomed into the house once occupied by “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, the American chief of staff whose tempestuous relationship with the Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek would shape US-China relations for decades to come. On television, dramas about the war have become a staple. They touch on two important elements in today’s China: they are a surefire commercial success, and they tick patriotic boxes that allow them to get past China’s censorship system. The Nanjing Massacre has been re-created on film several times, including Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death (2009) and Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War (2011). Even video gaming has taken the war on board; as the sociologist Hongping Nie has shown, massively multiplayer structures allow enthusiasts to fight the Japanese imperial army in games driven by Communist Party-approved software.
 
But the legacy of the war is also powerful in less tangible forms. In the new global arena, as China seeks to portray itself as a “responsible great power”, the country’s analysts and diplomats recall the days when China fought alongside the United States, the USSR and Britain as one of the Allies. They draw a powerful parallel between a time when China cooperated against the forces of reaction and the present day, when China wishes to present itself as an integral and positive part of a new order. Today, when relations between China and the US grow tense, the Chinese side is motivated in part by a belief that its wartime contributions against Japan, and its efforts to defeat America’s enemies, have been forgotten – and that it is time for America, and Europe, to remember.
 
Historians have also been given much freer rein than was the case a few years ago. The restrictions on the foreign ministry archive are not necessarily typical, as the opening up of the archives in China to researchers on topics other than the communist revolution has led to a more wide-ranging acknowledgement of the nuances in the country’s wartime experience, for Chinese and foreign scholars alike. My own recent study, China’s War With Japan, 1937-1945, benefited greatly from access to archives in Chongqing and Shanghai that could not be explored a decade or so ago. And the terminology of academic history of the war is also used to position the country as a co-operative rather than confrontational actor in world politics. The expression “war of resistance against Japan” (“KangRi zhanzheng”, or just “Kangzhan”) remains the commonest term to describe the war in China itself. However, “anti-fascist war” has also become more commonplace, particularly as writers seek to portray Chinese resistance not merely as a solo act of opposition to Japan, but rather part of an act of collective resistance to the Axis powers. The implication is clear: at an earlier time when its contribution was needed, China made a great sacrifice, and it should now be trusted as it seeks, once again, to enter international society with a wider role.
 
The new interpretations of history acknowledge the role of the United States in China during the war, but not always to the US’s advantage. One Chinese historian concluded that the aim of the United States in making China one of the major world powers by giving it a seat on the Security Council was to create a “vassal” for the US in the postwar world (an echo of Winston Churchill’s anxieties on the same question).
 
This new concentration on the wartime experience in the academy and in public has two sides. One is the emphasis on Japanese war crimes in China, which are used to remind the population and the wider world of China’s suffering during that period. In the suburbs of the north-eastern city of Shenyang, a museum commemorates the explosion on the railway track that launched the Manchurian crisis. (The façade of the museum is designed to resemble a desk calendar open at 18 September 1931, the date of the attack.) Perhaps most resonant of all, in 1985 the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall opened on the site of one of the most horrific killings by Japanese troops.
 
Yet ironically, memories of the war against Japan have been used to heal the scars left by another conflict, the painful civil conflict between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. One of the most startling sights for anyone who remembers Mao-era China is the villa at Huangshan, near the wartime capital of Chongqing, that once belonged to the Chairman’s old foe Chiang. Today, the villa is restored to look as it did during the war years, when Chiang looked out on to the vicious firebombing of the city in the near distance. The displays inside give many details of his role as a leader of the resistance against Japan, all of them very positive, and none painting him as a bourgeois reactionary lackey. A generation ago, one might have seen this kind of praise for Chiang on Taiwan, but it would have been impossible to find on the mainland.
 
The incongruous-seeming partial rehabilitation of the old Nationalist enemy has shaped other aspects of contemporary Chinese politics. The fall from power of the maverick leadership candidate Bo Xilai was the most compelling story in Chinese politics last year. Bo’s most eye-catching policies were a widely reported crackdown on criminal gangs and encouragement of Chongqing’s citizens to sing Mao-era songs. It was less remarked that one of Chongqing’s biggest publicity efforts was to portray itself as a wartime capital that had suffered while resisting the Japanese on behalf of all China. This was a reversal of the policy of the Mao era. Of all the Allied wartime capitals, it was the only one that had been given no chance to celebrate its resistance or to mourn its losses, because Mao had refused to allow any assessment of the Nationalist contribution to the war in anything other than highly negative terms. Even the Monument to Victory in the Anti-Japanese War, erected in Chongqing city centre, was renamed the People’s Liberation Monument (as in liberation by the Chinese Communist Party from the Nationalists) after 1949. In the early 21st century, Chongqing made up for lost time. The city burnished its reputation as the last redoubt of resistance, stressing its patriotic credentials.
 
The mass media have been used to send out messages about the new interpretation of history. A series entitled Temporary Wartime Capital was made by the local television station in 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the war and to celebrate Chongqing’s role. The marketing of the DVD was revealing. The cover showed images, familiar in the west, of landmarks in three great wartime capitals – the Houses of Parliament in London, the Capitol in Washington, DC and the clock tower in Red Square in Moscow. But it also showed, portrayed twice as high as the other structures, that anti-Japanese victory monument in the centre of Chongqing. The message to foreigners was clear: the Second World War had been won not by three great allies, but by four. And the domestic message was also pointed: Chongqing had had a role of global significance in the recent past and this should be acknowledged by all Chinese, including the leadership in Beijing.
 
However, not all the new interpretations of the war have made entirely comfortable reading for the CCP. Fan Jianchuan, a wealthy businessman and private collector in the western Chinese city of Chengdu, Sichuan Province, has used his fortune to set up a series of private museums outside the city. One of these commemorates Sichuan’s contribution during the wartime period, showcasing identity documents and uniforms from the Nationalist areas.
 
Fan published a book in which he described some of his artefacts. One of them was a chipped old cup that he had found which dated from the Cultural Revolution. It was inscribed with a heartfelt, semi-literate message from a victim of persecution: “I fought the Japanese, and I took a bullet in my leg.” Yet in 1966 the old soldier was being attacked because he had fought for the Nationalists, not the Communists. “For the eight years of the war of resistance against Japan,” Fan reflected, “he had dodged death . . . and suddenly, overnight, [his war record] was considered shameful!”
 
The reproach to Mao-era politics was clear; soldiers who had fought for China against Japan, but not on the side of the Communists, found themselves treated as class enemies just two decades later.
 
This once-ignored part of history has even made its way on to China’s small screens. In 2010, Cui Yongyuan, one of China’s bestknown television hosts, gave an interview in which he talked at length about his rediscovery of the Nationalist role in the war. As a child, he had seen films that implied that the Nationalists had collaborated with the Japanese, and it was only as an adult that he gained a greater understanding of their contribution when he toured a battlefield with a Nationalist veteran who showed Cui where his comrades had fallen. “This was perhaps the first time that I had met a Nationalist soldier,” he recalled. “I really began to feel respect for them.”
 
Cui interviewed over a hundred Nationalist veterans in Yunnan Province. He suggested that individual stories were the best way to explain the complexities of the war, whether it was occasions when the local people had betrayed members of the Communist Eighth Route Army to the Japanese rather than hiding them, or occasions when even collaborators with Japan might have shown some conscience. “Memoirs from collaborators give a variety of self-justifications,” he observed, “but it’s not always as simple as betraying your country. There were even some collaborators who did what they did as a version of the war of resistance, trading space for time.”
 
In a country where the only official version of war history had been that the Communists did all the serious fighting, and collaborators with the Japanese were scarcely human, this was a powerful statement from a significant public figure.
 

History wars across the sea

 
Oddly, the war between China and Japan was not as contentious during the cold war as it is today. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, both the People’s Republic and Japan downplayed the war period in public discussion. Mao’s China did draw on images of the Japanese invader to help foment patriotic sentiment, but these images were often stylised and had little connection with specific events (the Nanjing Massacre was hardly mentioned in that era). The leaders of the People’s Republic decided that it was more important to detach China from the cold war embrace of the United States than to bring up the crimes of a long-defeated enemy.
 
However, that attitude changed from the 1980s onward, as a Chinese leadership wearied by the Cultural Revolution turned instead to anti-Japanese nationalism to create legitimacy for itself. The new ability to criticise Japan openly led to vehement protests over issues such as content of Japanese textbooks which was felt to whitewash war crimes in China.
 
The subsequent decades have brought little convergence between the two sides. A joint committee of top Japanese and Chinese scholars was established in 2006 to provide an agreed version of various episodes in the history of the two countries. Despite efforts to reconcile views, disagreements over the way the war was interpreted (particularly the question of whether Japanese aggression in the 1930s was pre-planned or not) were so sharp that the report was never officially adopted by the Chinese government after it was presented in 2009. It remains unpublished in China today.
 
In Japan, memory of the war has also been complicated. One version of events, often heard in China and sometimes in the west, is that Japan has refused outright to acknowledge its own war crimes. This view is too simplistic. There is indeed a shrill right wing in Japan that denies wartime atrocities. Even the conservative mainstream in Japanese politics has too many people, not least Prime Minister Abe, who are often too quick to dismiss the enormity of Japanese war crimes as they seek to downplay their scale or significance. Japan has also pointed to its sad distinction as the only country ever to have been attacked with atomic weapons to make a case for itself as a “peace nation” – but often gives little context or explanation for the events that led to the dropping of atomic bombs.
 
However, there is also a wide and lively public sphere in Japan which has forced Japan to take account of its own past. The Japanese left, notably the investigative journalist Honda Katsuichi, was instrumental in forcing the country to re-examine the Nanjing Massacre in the 1970s, long before the matter came under the public’s gaze in the west or China. Although there have been attempts in Japan to introduce “revisionist” school textbooks that minimise Japanese atrocities in China, vigorous leftist teaching unions have played an active part in civil society efforts to push back against such moves.
 
Japan is a pluralist democracy with enough competing interests to prevent any one political view becoming dominant. Abe has been criticised even by members of his own party, such as the former cabinet secretary Yohei Kono. Nonetheless there is a significant nationalist element in Japan, buoyed in part by the seeming recovery of the economy under “Abenomics”, and by concern that a rising China may lead to a decline in Japan’s status on the world stage.
 

Conflict or resolution?

 
History and politics are coming together in a potentially toxic fashion in the East China Sea, and China and Japan urgently need to rethink their policies.
 
China has the greatest power to affect the regional political climate, and also probably needs to make the greatest cognitive leap. China’s leaders see themselves, understandably, as the victims of a century and a half of global oppression by imperialism. They have not yet come to terms with the duty China has, as the most dominant power in the region, to take the initiative to reduce tensions with neighbours, even when this flies against their perception that China deserves more influence. Nor do they yet understand that China’s authoritarian regime makes Beijing a tougher partner for its neighbours to read.
 
China argues that its political system is of no relevance to anyone but itself – yet even if one were to accept that position in domestic politics, it falls apart in international relations. The immensely messy leadership changeover last year, enlivened by the Bo Xilai scandal and punctuated by a new assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, sent shivers through all of Asia. If China really wants to reduce US influence in the region, it will need to learn when to hold back. If it wants friends, as opposed to occasional alliances of interest, it will need to learn that friendship sometimes means sacrifice by the stronger party, not just concession by the weaker.
 
Japan’s leaders also need to learn when to hold back – on rhetoric, in their case. While the likelihood that Japan could or would launch any sort of military venture in Asia is minuscule (even if its constitution were changed to allow it to do so), Abe’s insouciance about pressing the most historically neuralgic parts of the Asian body politic needs to be curtailed. It is not just the Chinese who feel offended at the implication that Japan need not apologise for its behaviour during the war. In fact, if Abe is interested in creating a loose alliance of other Asian nations that are also wary of China, downplaying Japan’s past offences is one of the very least effective strategies he could adopt.
 
And both sides should open their archives again to scholars. I write with a vested interest, to be sure. But political progress comes from sharing a nuanced history, not concealing the facts or adapting them to short-term interests, whether in an authoritarian or in a democratic state.
 
Rana Mitter is the author of “China’s War With Japan, 1937-1945: the Struggle for Survival”, published by Allen Lane (£25)

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