The New Remembering: History and Politics Are Coming Together in a Potentially Toxic Fashion in the East China Sea as China, Motivated by Memories of Japanese Wartime Atrocities, Agitates for Dominance in the Region

By Miter, Rana | New Statesman (1996), July 26, 2013 | Go to article overview

The New Remembering: History and Politics Are Coming Together in a Potentially Toxic Fashion in the East China Sea as China, Motivated by Memories of Japanese Wartime Atrocities, Agitates for Dominance in the Region


Miter, Rana, New Statesman (1996)


The foreign ministry archives in Beijing have been hard to gain access to this summer. For some years, documents stored there have been the source of some of the most exciting new research about diplomatic relations in Mao's China. But recently the flow of papers has diminished to a trickle. Rumours suggest that a researcher found a document from the Mao era that failed to back up Chinese claims to sovereignty over the barren islands in the East China Sea known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese and the Senkaku to the Japanese. This evidence is unlikely to make a public appearance any time soon. Meanwhile, the foreign ministry has all but closed its records as archivists hunt for other politically embarrassing papers.

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If this were merely a dispute about scholarly access to dusty files, it would be of rather limited interest. However, the event is just one part of a much wider shift in the relationships between China, Japan and the west. The unfinished business of 1945 in east Asia is coming back to haunt the region.

The signs have been there for awhile. Since late last year, observers have become increasingly alarmed at the appearance of Chinese warships and Japanese fighter jets around the disputed islands. In May, two Chinese researchers published an essay in the People's Daily--the most official of outlets--that went further than any Chinese territorial claim in the region had done so far, arguing that Ryukyu, the archipelago off the southern coast of Japan that includes Okinawa, had been ceded to Tokyo's control in 1895 at a time of Chinese weakness at the end of the first Sino-Japanese war, and should be returned to China.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been raising the temperature on Sino-Japanese relations. In late July, in the lead-up to elections to the upper house of parliament, he declared that Japan should change the phrasing of its 1993 official apology, in which the Japanese confessed to inflicting "immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds" on the "comfort women" from China, Korea and south-east Asia used as sex slaves by the military during Second World War. He has also tried to hedge around Japan's invasion of China in 1937, arguing that there is no clear definition of the word "invasion". Before the election, Abe made it clear that the islands are Japan's "unique territory, historically and in terms of international law". Abe's hardline stance helped his performance in the 21 July election for the upper house of the Diet; his Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide.

As Chinese economic and geopolitical power increases, the possibility of confrontation in east Asia is greater than at any time in the past half-century. With her declaration in 2011 of a "pivot towards Asia", the then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, gave notice that the United States had no intention of withdrawing from the region. Through the US-Japan security alliance, the US has maintained a powerful position in the Asia-Pacific region ever since the Second World War, shielding Japan under its defence umbrella. As late as the 1980s, China chose not to raise a public fuss about the arrangements. That has changed. Chinese anger today at these agreements stems in large part from the sense that China, not the US, should be the major power in the region today. But the historical basis of that anger comes from the shared memory of Japan's regional role during the Second World War when China was weak and vulnerable. This dynamic is now locking China, Japan and the US into a potentially toxic triangle.

Even for generations born many years after 1945, Chinese nationalist pride is shaped by anger at Japan's invasion of China in the 1930s. In recent years, Chinese youths have continued to express anger at Japan: many of them believe that the country has never apologised fully for its actions in China during the war.

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