East Asia's Dangerous History Wars

Politicians may be opening a Pandora's Box during an already risky regional power transition.

At the annual Davos World Economic Forum, which convened last month, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe disrupted the conviviality by offering an historical analogy that jarred his listeners. Abe likened the polemics and gunboat diplomacy (he did not characterize it thus) that China and Japan have been using against each other of late to the rivalry between Germany and Great Britain in the run-up to World War I. There was no doubt about which of the two nineteenth-century powers he considered the appropriate latter day stand-in for Britain, the liberal, constitutional polity that emerged victorious from the Great War. It was Japan, of course. China, in Abe’s rendition, represented Imperial Germany, the authoritarian, expansionist juggernaut that plunged Europe into the abyss and was defeated.

Recent scholarship on World War I, most recently Christopher Clark’s masterful account, has challenged the many Manichean interpretations of the war that assign all, or most, of the blame to Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. But Abe was not delivering a paper at a convention of the American Historical Association. His aim was political: to sound the tocsin so as to draw attention to the displays of Chinese power in East Asia, above all Beijing’s peremptory proclamation of an Air Defense Identification Zone that intrudes into Japanese and South Korean airspace, but also to Beijing’s shows of force aimed at underpinning its claims to assorted island groupings in the East and South China Seas. In Abe’s mind, these actions amount to an ominous bellwether—not merely for Japan, but for East Asia more generally.

For its part, China hasn’t been reticent about using past events to serve its present interests. In a barrage of recent opinion pieces that followed Abe’s December 26 trip to the Yasukuni war memorial, Chinese diplomats spotlighted Japan’s sins of militarism and conquest during the 1930s and 1940s. And they contrasted Germany’s willingness to acknowledge the horrors that accompanied Hitler’s assault on Europe and to accept Germans’ responsibility to engage in an forthright and fulsome reckoning with the past with Japan’s evasion and obfuscation over its wartime conduct.

Consider, for example, the essay written for The Scotsman by Li Ruiyou, China’s consul general in Edinburgh. It opens by castigating Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, where “14 Class-A criminals among the 28 Japanese political and military leaders convicted in 1946 by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East” are buried and whose grounds contain a “war museum” that depicts Japan’s empire as the result of a righteous effort to rescue Asia from Western domination. The truth, according to Li, is that China alone lost millions of people in what in fact was a brutal Japanese campaign of conquest.

Li’s piece had this in common with Abe’s speech: it was not an exercise in historiography. Instead, it was crafted to make three broader points of contemporary relevance. The first was that Japan, unlike Germany, has refused to come to terms with its sordid past and continues to deny its sins. (In 1993 Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono admitted that Japanese forces had pressed women from South Korea and other Asian countries into sexual slavery, and Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama apologized two years later for Japanese aggression, but neither act has mollified China or South Korea in light of other Japanese leaders’ positions on such issues.)

Li’s second point was that Abe’s pilgrimage was not an affront to China alone but also to the other East Asian states that were victimized by Japanese militarism, especially Korea, which became a Chinese protectorate in 1905 and was colonized outright in 1910.

Li’s third contention was that because of Japan’s history of imperialism and conquest and the refusal to acknowledge it, Abe’s plans to revise of Japan’s defense policy pose a threat to the region. In the eyes of Li, his fellow Chinese diplomats, and China’s leaders, if there’s an accurate analog to German militarism, it’s Japan, not China, for China was on the receiving end of Japan’s aggression.