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Bad Manners

The seven-decade-old slight that still poisons U.S.-China relations.

US Army/Getty Images
US Army/Getty Images

Last Monday, U.S. and Chinese naval ships met in a joint exercise at that most historically freighted of marine destinations, Pearl Harbor. In the first such visit to U.S. waters since 2006, three Chinese ships took part in a simulated search-and-rescue mission alongside American warships. The stated aim of the exercise was to foster better understanding between the two militaries, a welcome gesture when military and diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing sometimes seems to move from antagonism to warmth and back again with alarming speed. It was only on Aug. 29 that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that he was concerned about Chinese military actions in the South China Sea, which "increase the risk of confrontation, undermine regional stability and dim the prospects for diplomacy."

The uneven relationship between the U.S. and Chinese militaries is no surprise in an era when China’s influence is rising. However, there is an increasing disparity in the way that the two sides view each other’s actions. American interests are more and more tied to an unstated "containment" of China’s presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet the Pearl Harbor exercise has a historical aptness for a different reason: In China, there is a growing sense that American actions are tied to an unjust regional settlement that dates from the end of World War II.

After a significant Chinese contribution to the Allied victory in Asia, many in China argue, the United States has failed to recognize an unpaid debt. And just as America sought to contain China taking its rightful place in the world in the 1940s, so it seeks to do so again. At the start of the joint exercise, Rear Adm. Rick Williams, commander of Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific, declared to his Chinese visitors, "We are linked with you together in history, and we will be linked together in the future." For China, which is rediscovering its historical relationship with the United States, Williams’s statement rings true, but in ways that may not be comfortable for America ears.

For years, it has been well-known that Chinese and American military priorities clashed in wartime China. The conflict was crystallized in the confrontation between China’s leader Chiang Kai-shek and the American chief of staff sent to China after Pearl Harbor, Gen. Joseph Stilwell, whose brusque manner led to his nickname "Vinegar Joe." Stilwell’s diaries showed his contempt for Chiang, whom he nicknamed "the Peanut." Disgusted by the corruption endemic in the wartime capital of Chongqing and the poor state of the Chinese armies, Stilwell launched himself on a collision course with Chiang. Eventually, in 1944, the Chinese leader demanded that Roosevelt recall Stilwell. This moment signaled a fundamental breakdown between the Americans and the Chinese. The view of Chiang as a corrupt and incompetent fool became widespread in a postwar America: Chiang’s nickname had become "Cash-my-Check."

Yet in recent years, this version of events has been subject to serious historical revisionism in China and the West. There has been a wider recognition that China went to war with Japan in hugely difficult circumstances and with little foreign support. The early 20th century saw a growing confrontation between rising nationalism in China and an ever-more aggressive Japanese imperialism, with the occupation of Manchuria in 1931 the clear signal that Tokyo had aggressive designs on China. On July 7, 1937, fighting broke out between Japanese and Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing, and within weeks, China and Japan were locked in full-scale conflict. Over the next eight years, some 14 million Chinese would be killed, some 80 to 100 million would become refugees, and the flawed but real modernization of roads, railways, and industry that had been under way in the 1920s and 1930s would be utterly destroyed.

Today, many Westerners know little or nothing about China’s role in the war. Yet China was fighting Japan two years before Britain and France went to war with Germany, and four years before Pearl Harbor. By holding down more than half a million Japanese troops, China made a significant contribution to the overall Allied strategy. By early 1941, the Nationalists and their uneasy Communist allies were the only major forces opposing the Japanese in East Asia. If they had surrendered then — or even earlier, in 1938 — China would have become a Japanese colony, and Tokyo could have moved much earlier against Southeast Asia or even British India, making Allied victory in the Pacific far more difficult.

However, it was the event that Chiang needed to ensure China’s survival — the entry of the United States into the war after Pearl Harbor — that also helped to undermine his regime. There was a fundamental clash between the overall Allied aims, which necessarily prioritized the wars in Europe and the Pacific, and Chiang’s aims, which were to preserve China’s integrity in the face of Japanese invasion. It was hardly unknown that the Allies had rather different intentions: after all, Winston Churchill sought the preservation of the British Empire when Franklin Delano Roosevelt intended to use the war to dissolve it. But American pressure both in Washington and on the ground meant that China’s own war aims were repeatedly and summarily dismissed. The situation was worsened by the repeated attempts by Stilwell to implement strategies at odds with those of Chiang, who was cautious having been forced to fight essentially alone for over four years.

For instance, Stilwell pressured Chiang into taking part in an ill-advised dash to recapture Burma from the Japanese in February 1942. Horrified at the cavalier treatment of his troops under Stilwell’s command, Chiang wrote in May 1942 that "the alliance is just empty words." At the Cairo Conference in 1943, Roosevelt made Chiang vague promises of assistance, which were promptly reversed under pressure from Joseph Stalin. In 1944, Chinese troops were pressured into assisting Western troops in the recapture of Burma, even though central China was coming under massive pressure from Japan’s Operation Ichigô, to which the Japanese had committed some half a million troops.

In the war years, Chiang’s decisions were changeable and often ill-thought-out (as were many other Allied decisions at times). However, he was also the victim of a difficult reality. The Western Allies needed China to remain in the war. But because China was last in the queue for Allied assistance, it was repeatedly asked to bear burdens that would have been hard even for a much better-resourced country, rather than allowances being made for being an impoverished, isolated country that had already resisted Japan on its own for over four years before Pearl Harbor. The price the Nationalists made their people pay to maintain the war effort was the increasing corruption and repressiveness of the regime. Yet the profound effects of the war on China itself, and the increasingly poisonous alliance with the United States and Britain, have not been fully appreciated as a product of the terrible pressures placed on the wartime Chinese regime both by its enemies and by its allies. On Feb. 28, 1943, in a moment of supreme frustration, Chiang wrote of the three other Allies: "It’s as if China has met a hooligan, a bully and a kidnapper." Even Clarence Gauss, the U.S. ambassador to wartime China, and no friend of Chiang’s, noted in a message to Washington in June 1944 that critics might upbraid the United States because "we have not supplied the Chinese with arms" and "that the excursion into northern Burma was a mistake."

For decades, historical accounts of World War II in the West routinely downplayed the contribution of Chiang and the Nationalists. In the Chinese mainland too, after Mao’s victory in 1949, the only politically acceptable historical viewpoint was that the Communist Party had taken the leading role in winning the war against Japan. In recent years, however, the situation has changed radically. Chinese scholars have been given leeway to examine the war with more nuance (in part because politicians thought that being more favorable toward Chiang Kai-shek’s memory might aid reunification with Taiwan), and it is now quite common to see praise for Chiang’s contribution to the war effort in the mainland.

Yet this more sympathetic attitude within China toward the old Nationalist enemy has had an unexpected effect: the creation of a new sense of resentment about America’s record as China’s wartime partner. Chinese analysts have begun to link the treatment of Nationalist China with contemporary American attitudes in international society. One Chinese historian described the promotion of China to the U.N. Security Council at the end of the war as a way of creating a U.S. "vassal" state (as it happened, a position shared by Churchill). Agreeing with him, another declared that America had defined its foreign policy simply to "maintain its own national interests."

The narrative being created in China now is based on a particular reading of history in which America has consistently sought to damp down Chinese aspirations. A new version of history in the West, in which China is acknowledged as America’s "forgotten ally" during World War II, could be one element in changing the political temperature. By acknowledging that time past — but not long past — when China and the United States really were allies in the battle against fascism, a historical injustice might be remedied: the conclusion of the unfinished business of 1945 in which China’s contribution to the defeat of Japan is finally given its due. And if such a historical revision helped to create atmosphere of greater goodwill, there might be more space for a measured discussion of how Chinese influence can be used to best effect in a region which the US has no intention of leaving. Pearl Harbor might not be a bad place for that dialogue to begin.

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