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Legacy of war in Asia

Why the West and Japan should stop preaching to a rising China

Jean-Pierre Lehmann says the imperialist powers of old should acknowledge their own bloody history of plunder and exploitation, and work with Beijing to find a path to a peaceful rise, which so far is unprecedented

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 5:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 7:33pm

This year marks the anniversaries of a number of Asian historical landmarks. July 1 was the 20th anniversary of the handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the UK to China. August 8 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Asean declaration, the founding document of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This Friday, July 7, marks the 80th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of China, triggering the Pacific war that lasted until Japan’s surrender on September 2, 1945.

July 7 should be a day for reflection. Such was the case on June 6 three years ago, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, when the French president François Hollande hosted, among others, US president Barack Obama, Britain’s David Cameron, Canada’s Stephen Harper, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. This was one further indication that, while there are tensions in the Atlantic, the breakout of war, as occurred twice last century, is extremely unlikely.

Over the decades since the end of the second world war, there has been a great deal of dialogue, confidence-building and the establishment of solid institutions. Germany, for all the atrocities it committed, has been an exemplary European citizen and is arguably the Atlantic’s greatest guarantor of peace, just as it has proffered unconditional apologies.

Just as Germany has been the solution for peace in the Atlantic, Japan remains a critical problem for peace in the Pacific. In light of the composition and conduct of the Japanese government – with, inter alia, the Defence Minister Tomomi Inada paying regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, a sort of mausoleum for Japanese war criminals – it is highly unlikely that there will be reflection, let alone apology.

The Pacific war and its many ramifications tend to be ignored in Japanese education and public discourse generally. July 7 will not be marked by public forums among Japanese leaders, let alone with their Chinese, Korean, Singaporean or Filipino counterparts.

Instead, we hear of Japanese kindergartens spreading anti-Chinese and anti-Korean xenophobic messages and hotel chain proprietors (Toshio Motoya of APA) distributing in all rooms copies of his writings in which he denies the Nanking massacre occurred and claims that the Korean “comfort women” were not sexual slaves but prostitutes.

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But the lessons from July 7, 1937 extend beyond Japan. The 21st century is witnessing the rise of another great global power: China. Though there has been a good deal of debate among Chinese intellectuals on the implications of great power rise, illustrated in the seminal 2005 article by Zheng Bijian (鄭必堅), “China’s Peaceful Rise to Great Power Status”, there has been little reflection among the other great powers on how they might contribute.

If one looks at, for example, the current membership of the G7, all the countries, with the sole exception of Canada, achieved great power status through war, conquest, plunder, imperialism, exploitation, enslavement, and so on. Thus, while Japan is a major problem for peace in the Pacific, its warmongering corresponded to a pattern set by other G7 members, including the US, Britain, France, Germany and Italy – and indeed by others including the Netherlands, Belgium and Russia.

While it has become seemingly pervasive for the Western powers and Japan to mount their high moral horses and admonish China that it should “play by the rules”, they fail to explain why at the time of their rise to great power there were no rules or, if there were, they were egregiously flouted.

Thus, the eloquent 1839 letter by the Canton commissioner Lin Zexu (林則徐) to Queen Victoria, imploring her to stop her subjects from forcefully infesting China with opium, was contemptuously ignored. Throughout the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, the “great” powers plundered the planet, including of course China. What rules were the British and French playing by as they pillaged the Beijing Summer Palace in 1860?

Nor is the behaviour of the Western powers just ancient history

Nor is the behaviour of the Western powers just ancient history. American atrocities perpetrated against Vietnamese and Laotians continued into the third quarter of last century. As depicted in the excellent book by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, in fact the US has been pretty much continuously at war throughout the second half of the 20th century and most recently in the 21st, with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

One of the most compelling recent publications on the rise of China is by Geoff Dyer, The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China, in which he draws compelling parallels between the rise of the US as a great power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – manifest destiny, the Spanish-American war of 1898-99, resulting in the colonisation of the Philippines, and so on – and the rise of China in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine, seeking to establish a US exclusive sphere of influence over Latin American, ultimately came to concrete fruition a few decades later with, among other things, the metamorphosis of the Caribbean as an “American lake”. This, Dyer suggests, is comparable to what China is aiming to do vis-à-vis Southeast Asia generally and the South China Sea in particular – that is, that it should become a Chinese lake.

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The argument that these were different times with different parameters does not wash. The main difference from a Chinese viewpoint was that, whereas then the Western powers and Japan were extremely strong and China was extremely weak, today, the Western powers, the US in particular, remain strong while China is no longer weak. Thus, in seeking to draw inspiration from the methods and achievements of great powers rising, what models are there other than the Western and Japanese imperialist nations? There is no precedent for peaceful rise.

What models are there other than the Western and Japanese imperialist nations? There is no precedent for peaceful rise

This should not, of course, imply that while previous great powers looted and engaged in outrageous brutality, it is now “China’s turn”. But it strongly suggests that serious and honest reflection is called for, not only on the part of the Japanese, but also on the part of the other great powers, and on that basis to engage in genuine dialogue – not sermons – with China. Instead of getting on their moral high horses, sermonising from the alleged position of liberal values, far more constructive would be to admit – and eventually apologise – that in fact they behaved often abominably, feeling bound by no rules except that might is right.

This would seem the only viable means to engage China in its rise to great power, to contribute constructively to the unprecedented peaceful rise, and thereby to have some hope that peace may reign. Finally, after centuries of warfare, one could hope that great power bellicose rivalry might be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor at IMD, founder of The Evian Group, and visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong