Why Is China Still Dredging Up the Ghost of Imperial Japan?
Parading the old crimes of World War II can't mask the aggression of Asia's greatest power.
China is preparing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of victory in what its government calls “the war of resistance against Japanese aggression.” On Sept. 3, Beijing will host its biggest military parade in decades as visiting world leaders look on. Even so, China’s bravado could backfire, casting light on uncomfortable historical truths that its leaders might prefer to forget.
Japan is ostensibly the inspiration for China’s militarist chest-thumping. Beijing’s propaganda claims that the Chinese people have no more bitter adversary today than the country that invaded, and ultimately surrendered, before most of them were born.
Yet the intercontinental ballistic missiles, stealth fighter jets, and “aircraft carrier-killer” munitions that will grace the streets and skies of Beijing are designed to be used not against Japan, but against the United States, which fought on China’s side as its principal ally during World War II.
Indeed, China owes its territorial integrity today to America’s 1945 defeat of Imperial Japan, which had occupied parts of China since 1931. China’s global stature stems partly from U.S. wartime president Franklin Roosevelt’s hope that China would be one of the “Four Policemen” that would uphold the postwar order. This led the victorious allies to make China a founding member of the United Nations Security Council, an honor reserved for no other Asian country.
But it was not the Chinese communists who led the campaign against the Japanese invaders before their surrender. In fact, the guerrillas led by Mao Zedong largely stood on the sidelines during the war, while the nationalist armies of Chiang Kai-Shek fought epic land battles against Japan’s Imperial Army — only for Mao and his compatriots to fill the vacuum in the wake of Japan’s defeat and the nationalists’ military exhaustion, violently deposing Chiang’s regime four years after the war ended.
Indeed, as Singaporean ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan wrote last month in the Nikkei Asian Review, Mao Zedong brushed aside Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s attempts in 1972 to apologize, saying he was not angry about the war but in fact “grateful to Japan because without the war the Communist Party would not have been able to seize power.”
These inconvenient truths highlight the dangers for today’s China in using history as a club with which to beat Japan in their contest for leadership of 21st century Asia. They also underscore the strange combination of assertiveness and insecurity that characterizes the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Japan is the primary target of China’s ambitions to rewrite history. Chinese officials insist that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the latest in a string of Japanese leaders who have failed to atone sufficiently for the crimes of their forebears. That Japanese leaders over the years have officially apologized some 50 times for Imperial Japan’s aggression against its neighbors matters little to a Chinese regime that generates nationalist support at home by demonizing the old enemy next door.
But the campaign against Japan is particularly awkward in light of China’s own recent actions. Shining a spotlight on Japan’s wartime depredations reflects poorly on China’s more recent, and not entirely dissimilar, behavior.
Like Imperial Japan, China is using military force to assert sovereign rights over territories administered or claimed by its Asian neighbors in the South and East China seas. Like Imperial Japan, China’s military establishment seems determined to challenge the world’s predominant power, the United States, to secure greater strategic space in Asia and to assert physical control over natural resources such as the oil fields under the Southeast Asian seabed. Like Imperial Japan, China aims to secure primacy in Asia over the objections of neighbors that do not want to live under its dominion. By creating economic institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, Beijing even hints at ambitions to construct a new East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere that excludes the United States.
As Imperial Japan formed the Axis alliance with Nazi Germany to advance the two countries’ mutual aims, so China today enjoys an alliance of sorts with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It is defensive rather than offensive in character; both Beijing and Moscow fear the “color revolutions” that toppled Eurasian dictators a decade ago. At the same time, China’s revisionism in East Asia mirrors Russia’s revanchism in Eastern Europe, even though Beijing has been more subtle in coercing its neighbors than has Moscow in Ukraine.
Like Imperial Japan, China is sponsoring a “puppet regime” on the Korean peninsula. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian rule in Pyongyang would be unlikely to survive for long without Chinese material and diplomatic support; Kim retains an iron grip on his people thanks to a benefactor in Beijing that finds his methods distasteful but is unwilling to cede its influence on the peninsula.
Finally, like Imperial Japan, China’s regime today is not held in check by the rule of law and democratic accountability at home. The lack of transparency in China’s military spending and governmental decision-making accentuates its neighbors’ anxieties and raises the risk of a strategic miscalculation that could lead to international conflict.
Modern Japan, by contrast, is a mature democracy embedded in a defensive alliance with the United States. Uniquely, its constitution abjures war as an instrument of state policy. It is home to a rapidly aging society and boasts a population less than one-tenth of China’s.
Japan’s defense budget is only a quarter of the size of China’s, which bristles with offensive weapons for power projection. Japanese forces have not fired a shot in anger since 1945 — unlike China’s, which since the founding of the People’s Republic have fought wars against India, Russia and Vietnam, and against South Korea, the United States, and other United Nations forces in Korea.
Until recently, Japan was China’s leading source of foreign assistance and investment; it trades more with China than with any other country. Few nations are less likely to threaten the nuclear-armed Chinese behemoth — unless Tokyo is pressed by a crisis like a Chinese invasion of the Senkaku Islands (which China claims and calls the Diaoyu Islands), in which case Japan’s U.S. alliance becomes operative.
As its abrupt growth slowdown and stock market collapse have recently shown, China has enough problems today without dredging up those of the past. It was the madness of Mao Zedong, not of anyone in Japan, that cost the lives of as many as 60 million Chinese. And these casualties happened in a time of peace, not during the unprecedented calamity of a world war.
None of this excuses the crimes of Imperial Japan, for which the Japanese have been atoning for 70 years. And clearly China is ruled more prudently today than in the past. But if China’s leaders want to reflect on the lessons of the 20th century’s bloody history, they might begin closer to home.
A version of this article appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images