This piece was solicited by ‘Pengpai Defense’ (‘The Paper’) and published in its Mandarin translation on September 1, 2015 as lead-up to the massive Sept 3 Military Parade and celebration in Beijing, and is accessible at http://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_1370253.
What I would dearly wish is for readers of this blog proficient in Mandarin to see if the translation is accurate and, even more, what the many Chinese reactions to this piece say.
China suffered grievously at the hands of Imperial Japan in the years 1937-1945. As against 396,040 dead Japanese soldiers, nearly 20 million Chinese perished in the ‘War of Resistance’, approximately a sixth of this grisly total constituting soldiers mostly from Changkaishek’s Koumintang forces fighting the invaders in pitched battles, and of the Communist 8th Route Army and the New 4th Army (the kernel of the later Peoples Liberation Army) carrying out guerilla operations in the enemy’s rear areas. This was a horrendous price for a China embroiled in a civil-war-cum-‘anti-fascist’ war to pay even without accounting for the sustained atrocities, principally the ‘Nanjing massacre’ perpetrated by troops of the Imperial Japanese Central China Area Army and the 10th Army, excesses that pale only in comparison to the campaign for exterminating European Jewry by Hitler’s Nazi regime.
This experience has undoubtedly seared the Chinese people’s collective psyche and consciousness crowning, in their mind, the ‘century of humiliation’ their country suffered. That it embitters China’s relations with Japan to this day — some seventy years after the events of despoliation and mass murder, is not surprising. Bad national memories have a way of lingering, even growing weightier as resentments pile on with every passing year, and end up influencing current attitudes and future policies. The scorched memory has fanned the visceral fear in China of a re-militarised Japan.
The planned military parade on September 3 to mark for the first time and on a grand scale the victory in the war against Japan may thus be seen as sort of national catharsis, a means of venting anger at the suffering inflicted on the Chinese nation, and an occasion for a militarily ascendant China to flex its muscle, let Tokyo and the rest of the world know they are now dealing with a very different country. The parade will likely feature the most advanced armaments in the PLA arsenal, including the anti-ship ballistic missile system – a unique Chinese innovation expressly designed to keep Japanese warships and the aircraft carrier task groups of its treaty-ally the United States, from closing in on the long Chinese coastline on the East Sea and the South China Sea and initiating a conventional military affray, and the latest long range thermonuclear warheaded missiles, especially the DF-41, with the Second Artillery Strategic Forces to deter Washington, from escalating a losing campaign to the nuclear level.
So far so tolerable. Except China’s overly rough and belligerent foreign and security policy particularly vis a vis the countries it has territorial disputes with on land and sea – and there’s a whole host of such states on its periphery, conjoined to the matching military buildup the parade will try and showcase, is at an inflection point. Despite the beneficial economic interlinks it has with many adjoining countries, the uncertainty mixed with their apprehension and worry about how forcefully a powerful and ambitious China will push its claims and leverage its material resources against them, is forcing these states to seek protection, and secure military assistance and help from friendly big powers with problems of their own with Beijing.
Thus, three of the bigger Southeast Asian states contesting Chinese claims in the South China Sea are forging close military relations with extra-territorial powers. Vietnam has offered India the port of Nha Trang on its central coast to use as naval base and for electronic monitoring of the communications traffic to and from Hainan Island hosting both the headquarters of the Chinese Navy’s South Sea Fleet and the PLA’s Cyber Command. It has sent its Kilo attack submarine crews for training to the Indian submarine headquarters in Vishakapatnam, and secured batteries of the deadly Brahmos supersonic cruise missile from the Narendra Modi government. Hanoi is also seeking a rapprochement with the United States, and Cam Ranh Bay is likely to be opened to US aircraft carriers and escort vessels as rest, repair and replenishment station. Philippines, likewise, has sought American help, invoking the ‘mutual defence’ provision in the 1953 treaty, and received a number of F-16 combat aircraft to equip a depleted Philippine Air Force. Manila has also offered the Subic Bay naval base and Clark air force base for contingent use by the Indian military. Indonesia, meanwhile, has strengthened its security cooperation with India, for example, in terms of Indian help in maintaining its air force fleet of MiG-21Fs and Su-27s/Su-30MKs.
More significantly, a New Triple Entente is emerging in Asia of India, the United States and Japan with the aim, to the extent possible, of peacefully containing China. This entente is a backstop to the series of bilateral security arrangements between these big powers, and between them and the smaller rimland/offshore countries. The danger to China is that a clutch of states, motivated by feelings of shared threat and danger could end up coalescing into a formidable “nightmare coalition” of the kind Bismarck’s Germany faced in the 19th Century. Surely, this is not what Beijing wants to see happen, but it is something that will transpire and ultimately hurt China’s interests.
At the core of this emerging coalition is the trio of India-Japan-United States. China’s ties with India and the US are often troubled but do not carry the emotional-historical baggage of the kind Sino-Japanese relations do. If Beijing fears a militarily significant Japan, Tokyo is afraid of an over weaning China bent on redressing historical, wartime-related, wrongs with coercive use of military force. Tokyo feels aggrieved that the financial restitution and reparations, and direct investments Japan has made in the intervening years totaling in excess of a hundred billion dollars that enabled China to become a major manufacturing and economic power has made little difference to the anti-Japanese sentiments the Communist leadership keeps stoking in the Chinese people. Given the emotional drivers of this testy relationship on both sides, the situation could turn combustible.
At its heart, ironically, lies a seminal opportunity for peace. Can China move on, turn the page on a bad chapter in in the history of bilateral ties, and alight on a modus vivendi not laced with the animus from the past? Or, put differently, should a statute of limitations on the recompense and guilt for the long ago excesses committed by the Japanese imperial army not now apply? To argue that there has to be closure on this issue, sooner rather than later, is in no way to absolve the Japanese of the responsibility for the barbaric acts, albeit in wartime. But unless Beijing stops raking up the same old emotions, a fed-up Japan feeling it has atoned long and hard, has paid sufficient financial recompense, done enough to try and win China’s forgiveness, will simply stop feeling bad. After all, Japan is now three generations removed from the Second World War-generation. In an analogous situation Israel, with far more to cavil about the state-driven program to eliminate Jewry from Europe, has nevertheless made peace with Germany and is on the best of terms with the German nation and people.
There is, after all, only so much guilt that can be extracted from a one-time adversary. Beyond a point though there will be no guilt to feel. Japan has if not reached that point is rapidly approaching it. The nationalist government in Tokyo under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is moving to unsaddle his country of the political obligation to be under a system of permanent guilt and moral debt to China. It, perhaps, explains Abe’s visit to the Yakasuni Temple enshrining the spirits of the Japanese war dead soon after assuming power despite knowing fully well the sort of furor it would create in China. His government, moreover, is moving to amend the country’s ‘peace Constitution’ and to begin selling armaments to friendly states. Japan sought to interest the Indian Navy in its Soryu-class conventional attack submarine and the Shinmeiwa Company will soon be signing a deal for its US-2 flying boat optimized for maritime surveillance and expeditionary missions.
Nanjing can no more be forgotten than Aushwitz, and it is only right for China (as it is for Israel) to remind the world that such episodes will not be tolerated, let alone allowed to recur. But this is very different from using the memories of excesses to keep enmity alive and all fired up, because that would create a powder keg milieu which is liable to blow up at any time should tensions begin to spiral with neither country feeling any obligation to control the situation. It is an outcome Asia and the world can well do without.