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The Far East and the shadow of history

BEN CHACKO looks at why China is urging the world to 'safeguard the outcome of World War II' 69 years after it was won

China made an appeal to the international community at the end of last month for "concerted efforts to safeguard the outcome of World War II and protect the post-war international order."

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had been moved by news that German President Joachim Gauck had written to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Leningrad - which also happens to be Holocaust Memorial Day, since the Red Army liberated Auschwitz exactly a year later - apologising for the 872-day siege.

It was a nobler tribute to Leningrad's sacrifice than that adopted by Russian liberal TV station Dozhd, which sparked an online media furor by holding a poll asking whether the city should have surrendered to "save lives."

Dozhd was forced to apologise, while alleging that the social media storm might have been orchestrated by the state in order to get an excuse to crack down on the station.

This seems unlikely since in the same week angry netizens bombarded state-run TV station Vesti with complaints for posting an image of Goebbels on its website in a picture gallery of "great people."

Dozhd, which claimed it was merely posing an innocent historical question, seems to have ignored the offensive nature of its poll in a country that suffered more than any other to defeat fascism - as well as the fact that the most cursory knowledge of the history of occupied Europe in the war would tell us that surrendering to the nazis was not a way of "saving lives."

The TV station may simply have asked a silly question without thinking, but Europe's left can be justifiably suspicious about the purpose of such polls.

Rewriting the history of the second world war has been a popular pastime for the right since the 1990s. The EU's European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism marks a bid to equate the fascists with the people who defeated them, while in Lithuania, Latvia and now Ukraine the active rehabilitation of nazi collaborators and war criminals is becoming mainstream.

Such efforts must be seen as part of a strategy to discredit communism as a movement, so it is unsurprising that the world's largest Marxist-Leninist country doesn't like them.

China ties them in with attempts to undermine the United Nations - Hua pointed out that "the modern international order under the leadership of the UN was built on the victory of the world anti-fascist war" - and Beijing has long expressed its anger over the willingness of the US and its allies to ignore or subvert the UN through crimes such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 assault on Libya.

But naturally enough China's focus is not on Europe. The "world anti-fascist war" was fought against Japan as well as Germany.

And since last summer, when Japan's government provocatively bought the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, China has been concerned by what it views as Tokyo's increasingly aggressive stance.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes no secret of his intention to amend the country's "peace constitution," which bars it from undertaking any military action except in self-defence, and his desire to restore Japan's status as a major military power.

He claims that this is needed because of China's increasing assertiveness in the Pacific, as indicated by its announcement of an air defence identification zone (Adiz) last autumn - though other countries including Japan have previously set up these zones without causing such a furor.

Western assessments tend to fall into two camps.

One sees China as the aggressor, partly on ideological grounds as its political system has less in common with our own and partly because China is the world's fastest growing power.

Some have even compared it to imperial Germany before the first world war, arguing that as China grows it will inevitably come into conflict with the established global superpower, the US.

This ignores China's commitment to its "peaceful rise" and its consistent advocacy of negotiated solutions to international conflicts - this was its position over the Nato wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now the threatened one in Syria.

It also ignores the fact that there is simply no evidence that China is attempting to become a military rival to the United States - the latter has over 700 military bases worldwide in over 50 countries, while China has a grand total of zero foreign military bases.

 

The second camp sees China-Japan rivalry as a tit-for-tat affair between two old enemies.

This attitude was probably boosted when the ambassadors of both countries to Britain compared each other's alleged militarism to fictional Harry Potter villain Lord Voldemort earlier this year, though I'd say in China's defence that its accusation was more sophisticated - you'd have to have read the books to understand its comparison of the Yasukuni shrine to a "horcrux." Still, I'd guess that the exchange was not seen by many people as particularly edifying.

However, China's recent references to safeguarding the post-WWII international order would seem to strike a chord in other countries too.

Japan's relations with South Korea, a fellow US ally, have also been frosty since Abe came to power.

Seoul is just as opposed to revision of the "peace constitution" as China is, and has also expressed outrage at Abe's visit to the aforementioned shrine - which honours many of Japan's war dead including 14 "class-A" war criminals - and repeated bids by Japanese politicians to downgrade or justify the country's army forcing hundreds of thousands of women into prostitution during the 1930s and '40s.

This highlights the fact that the legacy of the second world war is rawer in Asia - Japan remains in denial about many of its war crimes, while the ongoing division of Korea itself is a living reminder of the conflict's consequences.

When China announced its Adiz, a major South Korean newspaper surprised the Japanese by attacking Tokyo for provoking this by "regressing to a militarist path."

Japanese officials, who blamed Beijing's longing for "hegemonic regional leadership" for the tension, could hardly say the same about Seoul, so they dismissed its attitude as "strange and emotional."

Those predicting a clash between a rising China and a still-dominant US are right about one thing. It is Washington's "pivot to Asia" which is ultimately at the heart of this dispute.

The US has had the most powerful military presence in Asia for decades. A growing China means that to maintain that it needs to devote more of its total military strength to that region of the world.

Just as Washington sees it as helpful for Britain and France to maintain disproportionately strong armies in Europe so they can assist it in imposing its will in the Middle East, it is now pressing for Japan to upgrade its military so it has a strong proxy in the Far East.

This suits the rightwingers in Tokyo down to the ground, but it's a dangerous game.

Hua reminded her listeners last month that next year will mark 70 years since victory in the second world war. "We will work with the international community to protect that victory and promote peace, stability and prosperity," she said.

The US's record does not suggest it shares similar priorities. The peoples of east Asia suffered horrendously during the Korean and Vietnam wars as Washington attempted to maintain its pre-eminence in the region.

It would be a tragedy if the Pacific once again became a flashpoint for global conflict.

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