War anniversary promises year of difficulty for Asia’s rival powers

Powerful waves of nationalist sentiment have endured since the second world war and continue to pose difficulties for the leaders of Japan and China. EPA/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Australia has been gripped by war commemoration fever. The centenary of the Anzac landings at Gallipoli is dominating media, politics and public debate.

The central place of the Anzac myth in the story Australians tell about themselves makes this understandable. But this introspection shouldn’t blind us to 2015 marking an anniversary of a more profoundly important event than the ill-fated efforts to seize the Dardanelles from a sclerotic Ottoman empire.

How WW2 changed the Asian order

August 1945 was a turning point in modern history. It brought to an end Japan’s imperial ambitions in Asia.

Australians think of the war in the Pacific as part of the broader canvas of the second world war. But the conflict with the Western powers was only the final act of two generations of colonial expansion by Asia’s first industrial power.

At its peak in the early 1940s, Japan controlled all of the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan, large swathes of northern and coastal China, and virtually all of what we now call Southeast Asia. It was strategically threatening Australia.

The anniversary of the second world war’s end is important today for two main reasons. First, virtually all of Asia’s flashpoints have their origins in the war and its aftermath. The division of Korea, the status of Taiwan and the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas have as their root cause the wash-up of Japan’s defeat.

The politics of history is the second reason why 1945 has such salience – and particularly the ways in which powerful waves of nationalist sentiment are ramping up strategic rivalry in Asia today.

The disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands continue to be a source of tension in the Sino-Japanese relationship. EPA/Hiroya Shimoji

Sino-Japanese tensions have spiked in recent years around disputed islands in the East China Sea, which the Japanese call the Senkaku and the Chinese call the Diaoyu. Frequent harassment of each other’s coastguards, fishing fleets and at times highly risky engagements – including Chinese air force jets flying dangerously close to Japan’s – have ratcheted up tensions.

Conflict between Asia’s two largest economies over barren and uninhabited islands has become a very real possibility.

But in November 2014, a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of APEC between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping seemed to signal a thaw in relations. Further high-level security talks were held in March 2015 – the first since 2011.

It is hoped that a crisis-management mechanism designed to defuse aerial and maritime clashes could be in place by the end of 2015. China has also hinted that it might even invite Japan’s leader to commemorations marking the end of the second world war.

The risks involved in commemoration

Necessary as these initiatives are, the underlying sources of conflict remain fundamentally unchanged. Japan feels threatened by China’s rise and refuses to relinquish its administrative control of the disputed territories. China believes that the islands remain unfinished business from 1945, that Japan acquired them wrongfully and that they are part of China.

Both the Communist Party in China and Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in Japan have very little scope for compromise given how important nationalist sentiment is to their political fortunes.

China’s support for the proposed crisis-management mechanism is closely tied to what Abe says in an upcoming second world war commemoration speech. Should he fail to express Japanese remorse, all bets are off.

The Chinese war commemorations are to be held at Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing – the place where a Japanese attack began its full-blown invasion of China in the late 1930s. Japan sees this as provocative: Abe is unlikely to take part in such an event.

China’s war commemorations will be held here, at Marco Polo Bridge. EPA/Michael Reynolds

2015 is thus a year not only of commemoration but of very real risk. Conflict between China and Japan remains a real prospect and one that has very immediate consequences for Australia. These flow not only from Australia’s economic interests with the two Northeast Asian giants, but from its strategic links with the US and increasingly Japan.

Conflict between China and Japan is by no means inevitable, but responsibility for avoiding it does not only rest with their respective governments. Their narrow fight over rocky islands and their resources is one in which we all have a stake. The region as a whole must work to avoid war.

To do this, concrete steps need to be taken to manage crises, reduce tensions and ultimately resolve the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. After all, 2015 is not just the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war, it is also the 120th anniversary of the Treaty of Shimonoseki – signed after Japan’s much earlier defeat of China.

It is the festering wounds of that conflict with which we still grapple today.