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.
South Korea holds a special place in China’s efforts to rally support against Japan. Seoul’s condemnation of Japanese leaders visits to Yasukuni and their failure to admit Japan’s imperial misdeeds, such as the forced enlistment of Korean females as so-called “comfort women” during World War II, has been persistent and vociferous, and animosity toward Japan runs deep among South (and North) Koreans. It was at South Korean president Park Guen-hye’s behest that China built a memorial in Harbin to Ahn Jung-guen, the young Korean nationalist who, in October 1909, shot to death
China and Japan are hardly the first countries to deploy history to put their opponents on the defensive and to depict themselves as victims or as paragons of reason and pure motives, and they won’t be the last. But what makes Beijing and Tokyo’s current reversion to this time-honored tactic is that it coincides with three developments that are altering the balance of power that has persisted in East Asia for over half a century.
The first is China’s post-1978 breakneck pace of economic growth and technological modernization have ended the weakness and vulnerability it has endured for 150 years, giving rise to a desire to regain the grandeur and power that marked much of its long history. China is projected to surpass the United States in economic output soon, displacing Washington from the position it has held for a generation. True, China will still trail the United States in per capita income and technological innovation for decades to come, but there’s no question that, barring an economic or political crisis that disrupts its trajectory, we are witnessing a power shift with global ramifications.
The second change is that while the United States will retain a military advantage over China for many years, the gap is narrowing. Chinese defense spending in 2012 was still less than a fifth of America’s ($129 billion versus $689 billion), but as China’s economy gets bigger and as more of the basic needs of its citizenry are met Beijing will have more money to allocate to its military, especially if it decides to increase the proportion of GDP that it devotes to defense, which currently is considerably less than America’s.Moreover, the capabilities and reach of China’s armed forces will expand as its technological modernization progresses. The United States will remain unrivalled in its capacity to project power worldwide for many years, but China’s growing wealth and military might will make it a tougher customer to deal with in East Asia, a region in which several countries (notably Japan and South Korea) have tied their security to America’s peerless power. No East Asian state has failed to notice that, in addition to its recent declaration of an expanded ADIZ, China has laid claim to most of the South China Sea, conducted air and naval patrols of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands (administered by Japan, claimed by China), and played hardball with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal—all with unprecedented assurance and scant regard for Washington’s reaction.
Third, despite the assurances—most recently the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia”—that emanate intermittently from Washington about the reliability of its commitments to protect friends and allies in the Asia-Pacific, the states in this region that have long relied on American protection are now more uncertain about value of America’s guarantee, explicit or implied, than at any time since World War II. That’s because they are keeping close watch on the two transformations I’ve just mentioned. None of these countries is about to give up on the United States—they lack the wherewithal to defend themselves independently—but all are concerned, to varying degrees, that the strategy that they have long relied on is being undermined by changes beyond their control. Summits with American leaders and calming declarations from Washington won’t quiet their anxiety. The facts are clear: China’s power is ascending, and America’s presence in Japan and Korea has been diminishing. Although isolationism is not an accurate description of Americans’ current mood, their weariness with wars and worries about festering economic and social problems at home are evident from opinion polls, as is their belief that the United States should do less abroad.