ollowing an interview with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo at the World Economic Forum in Davos, well-respected Financial Times reporter Gideon Rachman tweeted that Abe had just “said that China and Japan now are in a ‘similar situation’ to UK and Germany before 1914.”
This statement launched a flotilla of anxious editorial columns in newspapers and websites around the world. Ten days later, the Japanese Foreign Ministry announced that the interpreter made a mistake: Abe said no such thing; the translation company was to blame.
The possibility of armed conflict between Japan and China is higher than at any point since 1945.
According to the official transcript that Abe’s chief cabinet secretary would hand the international press, in response to a question about the likelihood of war between China and Japan the prime minister apparently said, “This year marks the 100th year since World War I. At the time, Britain and Germany had a strong economic relationship, but they went to war. I mention this historical background by way of additional comment.”
The possibility of armed conflict between Japan and China is higher than at any point since 1945. In the past year, tensions between them have risen dramatically because of a sovereignty dispute over some uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea, a condition now at its nadir due to both sides’ overlapping Air Defense Identification Zones in the area adding to the mix a 75 percent increase in jet-fighter cat and mouse games and pilots’ unsure of the rules in play.
In short, anything Abe says about anything concerning China matters enormously. Yet, during these anxious times instead of trying to lessen the possibility for serious confrontation, the prime minister and his supporters make abundantly clear that they are far more interested in securing the limelight and playing to nationalism at home.
The start of this pattern precedes Davos. Nowhere did Abe do more damage via historical symbolism than with his December visit to the notorious Yasukuni Shrine to war dead in Tokyo where the spirits of 14 convicted class-A war criminals are commemorated. Included in this infamous group are figures such as Itagaki Seishiro, who helped plan the 1931 Mukden incident that led to Japan’s takeover of Manchuria.
The Chinese Foreign Minister’s initial response to Abe’s World War I analogy was to dismiss it as “anachronistic,” given how different the geopolitical situation is now to that of a century ago. For starters, nuclear weapons were not part of the picture, let alone the preponderance of the GDPs involved: together China, Japan, and the United States—Japan’s chief ally—now total 40 percent of the world’s output.
Earlier in this still new year, a Chinese diplomat wrote an op-ed for a British newspaper that likened Abe to the Dark Lord of the Harry Potter universe, to which a Japanese diplomat responded by saying that it was China that seemed determined to “play the role of Voldemort in the region.”
This Chinese diplomat’s handling of the World War I allusion might seem a useful move to defuse hysteria. It would be a mistake, though, to think that sensationalistic analogies are coming only from Tokyo or that Abe’s backers alone have been playing to nationalistic passions at home and trying to convince the world that all the blame for tensions lie with the other side. Chinese President Xi Jinping and company have been doing much the same.
At Davos, a leading Chinese banker is said to have combined a passing swipe at the Japanese as the “Nazis of Asia” with a reference to China being a country that loves peace—a comment that apparently drew quiet giggles from some in attendance. Earlier in this still new year, a Chinese diplomat wrote an op-ed for a British newspaper that likened Abe to the Dark Lord of the Harry Potter universe, to which a Japanese diplomat responded by saying that it was China that seemed determined to “play the role of Voldemort in the region by letting loose the evil of an arms race.”
All this worrisome 2014 rhetoric comes in the wake of troubling back-and-forth volleys in 2013. Before Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, Beijing declared its new Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea which overlaps the one Japan has maintained for years over the islands there that Tokyo also claims. The sovereignty dispute, involving small pieces of land that China calls the Diaoyu Islands and Japan refers to as the Senkaku ones, is decades old and also critically introduces the United States to the mess because of Washington’s alliance with Tokyo. Secretary of State John Kerry underscored the point just this week, reaffirming the basics of the 1960 treaty that commits our country to protect Japan from armed attack. There’s no question that Beijing’s act played a role in upping the ante for posturing on all sides.
Confusingly, two spinning discs are now at play: think of a DJ scratching, only think of a really heavily armed one. On one disc is all the lingering resentment from the first half of the 20th century, from histories that live on in deeply unsettled ways in physical and emotional scars as well as in denied truths, affronted dignity, and stories of proud countries laid low and determined to surge back to prominence. On the other disc are recent international laws concerning control over islands and ocean resources that have nothing to do with pre-1945 East Asia yet are tied by location to its unresolved legacies.
Adding to the combustible nature of the current situation are some traits shared by Abe and Xi, who is not just China’s President but also head of the Chinese Communist Party. Each seems determined to be seen as a bold economic reformer and a fierce patriot, someone who is second to none when it comes to his desire to have the country he leads given the global recognition it deserves.
Many in Washington and Whitehall are used to seeing Chinese leaders use historical references in disturbing or misleading ways, and are used to pushing back against it. This does not stop them, however, from being vexed by seeing an ally—Japan—do likewise.
What does any of this have to do with 1914 or what Abe said at Davos?
In 1914, Japan was riding high internationally. Like China, it was on the side of the Allies. Completely opposite from China, Japan was the region’s rising power. It had triumphed over China in the 1894-95 war that secured recognition for Japan of control over the East China Sea region (including granting Tokyo possession of Taiwan and its outer islands, which many argue lies at the heart of today’s tensions). In 1900, its forces had been welcomed into an international expeditionary force, including American soldiers and those marching under the flags of six European countries, which stormed into China to suppress the Boxer Uprising. In 1905, it defeated the army of one of the powers it had sided with five years before, Russia, in a war that sent shockwaves around the world as the first modern victory of an Asian over a European military. In 1910, it claimed Korea as a colony.
In 1914, in short, Japan was gaining in global clout and growing rather than shrinking in size, burgeoning into an empire through colonization abroad. The contrast with China could hardly be starker. While the 1911 Revolution had transformed China from a big empire to an equally large new republic (with many of its young leaders looking to Japan for example), by 1914 this young country was already fragmenting into a loose collection of regions controlled by separate military strongmen.
In this historical mix, Japan was so confident that on January 18, 1915—almost 99 years to the day before Prime Minister Abe’s recent Davos utterance—Tokyo issued what historians call the “21 Demands.” Through these demands, Japan announced it would seek significant new control in north China over railroads, mines, and territories in addition to extensive privilege in financial dealings throughout the country. The Chinese national authorities, worried that being drawn into hostilities with Japan would be disastrous, gave in quickly. This was first in a series of capitulations that would trigger protests at home in which anger at Japanese aggression fused with complaints that the Beijing authorities lacked patriotism and were generally corrupt and ineffective.
The United States and Britain balked at Japan’s moves, so Tokyo failed to obtain its immediate demands. But when World War I ended with Japan financially sound, the Chinese authorities weak, and America and Britain with other concerns, Tokyo soon got nearly everything it had sought.
America’s diplomats—with backing from counterparts in England and Australia—are daily expressing frustration that Japan’s leaders seem bent on using history solely as a weapon rather than trying to understand its contents to create a productive future.
While Japan gained many things in the wake of 1915, what it lost in that year was the wide-eyed trust that America and Britain had previously given it. In this regard, there are parallels to today, not in what happened a century ago but what happened in the year whose centenary arrives eleven months from now. America’s diplomats—with backing from counterparts in England and Australia—are daily expressing frustration that Japan’s leaders seem bent on using history solely as a weapon rather than trying to understand its contents to create a productive future. Looked at differently, Tokyo acknowledging the damage caused by mistaken strategic choices that ultimately failed during the last 100 years could generate international confidence for Japan’s strategic decisions moving forward. Instead, alas, its current leadership persists in feints and historical misdirection that pushes things in the opposite direction, dragging everyone backwards.
Many in Washington and Whitehall are used to seeing Chinese leaders use historical references in disturbing or misleading ways, and are used to pushing back against it. This does not stop them, however, from being vexed by seeing an ally—Japan—do likewise. In addition, while Beijing has plenty to answer for when it comes to shirking responsibility for and distorting the memory of tragic past events—the Great Leap Famine, the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, violence waged in Tibet and Xinjiang, the June 4th Massacre of 1989, and so on—the Japanese government as the historical aggressor nation in East Asian developments of the early-to-mid-twentieth century has a special responsibility to use allusions to that period more productively.
Leaving aside Prime Minister Abe’s comments at Davos, we do have some thoughts on how he might responsibly bring up events of roughly a century ago. If he wants a shot at going down in history as a hero of Northeast Asia—and not the wannabe Hollywood villain he is becoming—he might invoke history with a statement like this one: “One hundred years ago as European nations began a war of unprecedented violence and destruction, Japan, too, unfortunately continued to move in a disturbing direction. Having already taken control of Korea, ninety-nine years ago, Japan began its incursions against China. Japanese soldiers would eventually control a large swath of China and kill millions of people. Today, anniversaries such as those of 1914’s start of World War I and 1915’s “21 Demands” should be moments to honor the dead on all sides and to rededicate ourselves to work together peacefully within the region and in the world at large.”
The pipedream of a couple of historians perhaps, but profaning history to begin a new war is simple madness.