China’s V-Day and Contest for Power in East Asia: Indian response

china-paradeIndia is keenly watching the unfolding dramatic events in East Asia as these not only have a bearing on its recent “Act East” policy, but also on regional stability issues. At stake are not merely half of Indian trade, major investments, markets, technology flows that transit through this region but also the subtle messages of power transition between China and Japan in the short and medium term.

China is celebrating the “V-J [Victory over Japan] Day” on September 3 with a massive Beijing military parade. It is also the first time that Beijing would be inviting armed forces from abroad to participate in a national event and also the first time President Xi Jinping will be organising such an event. The previous military parade was several years ago on the 60th national day in October 2009.

Beijing Parade: Symbolism and Power Games

In the search for “allies and friends” in the international system, Beijing is sounding out various countries in the ongoing power transition at the global and regional levels. After successfully organising Beijing Olympics in 2008 and Shanghai Expo in 2010 – which raised Beijing’s stock – China had floated the Silk Road and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank recently. Nearly 50 countries tilted towards Beijing’s economic pull, with China emerging as the largest trading partner for 128 countries.

The invitation to the current Beijing military parade is also one more measure in this direction of influencing global and regional players. About 40 leaders have confirmed participation in the Beijing event, including presidents of Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Egypt, Czech, and others although United States, UK, Germany and others are sending officials from their embassies. India decided to send Gen V.K. Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs, although President Pranab Mukherjee represented India at a similar event organised by Russia at Moscow on May 7. This downgrading is partly linked to the ongoing assessments on China’s rise and India’s relations with major countries, including with Japan with which it has “global partnership”.

China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress in February 2014, passed a resolution to commemorate September 3 as the day to celebrate the Japanese surrender in 1945 after the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and December 13 (the day Japan captured Nanjing, the then capital of China in 1937) as national Memorial Day to remember the Nanjing massacre. President Xi Jinping attended three public meetings – on July 7, 2014, to mark the Chinese resistance against Japan in 1937; September 3, 2014 to mark the 69th anniversary of the victory over Japan and the December 13, 2014 meeting at Nanjing.

China-Japan dialectic

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C) is led by a Shinto priest as he visits Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo December 26, 2013. Abe visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine for war dead on Thursday, in a move likely to anger Asian neighbour China and South Korea. REUTERS/Toru Hanai (JAPAN - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT) - RTX16U1F
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C) is led by a Shinto priest as he visits Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo December 26, 2013.

Behind these decisions are issues related to China-Japan tensions on historical issues, viz., Nanjing massacre of 1937, comfort women, forced labour, textbook revisions and visits by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo which has memorials for the war-dead. These tensions are further aggravated by China’s rise, the territorial dispute over Senkaku islands, and competition over energy resources and sea lanes in East and South China Seas. These have clouded bilateral relations, with both militaries escalating tensions. According to Japan, China had transgressed over 400 times last year in the vicinity of Senkaku islands and Beijing imposed an Air Defence Identification Zone in late 2013, while Beijing accuses Japan of initiating “collective self-defence” to counter China. China also witnessed hundreds of anti-Japanese protests in the last decade.

However, China’s political inconsistencies are legion. Leaders like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and others sought to normalise relations after the Japanese surrender. Nevertheless, recently, rising nationalism and contest for power are leading to tensions.

For instance, the Japanese political leaders’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in 1971, 1980, and 1981, hardly elicited any major outcry in China. After Prime Minister Nakasone’s visit to the shrine in 1985, a committee advised political personalities not to visit the site. However, Prime Ministers Miki, Ohira, Nakasone, Hashimoto and Koijumi visited the Shrine. Most recently, PM Shinzo Abe visited the shrine in 2013. Abe, however, did not visit the shrine in August 2015.

‘Sorry’ Diplomacy

japan-surrenderAnother issue is the “apologies” diplomacy. It is estimated that Japan apologised more than 20 times for the historical events. In 1989, for the first time the Japanese Emperor Akihito expressed “regret” to express apologies for China over its historical role in China. He makes a customary speech every August 15 to mark the country’s surrender in 1945. Other major Japanese statements include that of the 1993 Kono Statement which acknowledged the involvement of Japan in the comfort women stations, the 1995 Murayama Statement on Japanese “colonial rule and aggression” that was critical of Japanese nationalism during the war-time period and the Koizumi Statement of “heartfelt apology and deep remorse” in 2005. On August 14, 2015 PM Shinzo Abe expressed “feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.” Abe said contritely that Japan’s “immeasurable damage and suffering” was inflicted on the peoples of Korea, China, Southeast Asia and others. Abe reiterated his country’s pledge that “we shall never again resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” He was unequivocal on no further apologies when he stated: “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologise.” However, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman the next day demanded an “explicit” apology from Japan.

Thus, we are living in an age when historical issues are coming to the fore recently to influence the current and future developments between nations. The 1930s Nazi pogroms on the Jewish and the Polish, Japanese atrocities in China, Korea, Taiwan and Southeast Asia, British imperial violence on the Indians and aborigines in Australia and Africa, Turkish genocide of the Armenians, and others have been tormenting nations again.

Post-colonial predicament

Harking back to historical problems is unique to some post-colonial societies in China and the Koreas, while other such states have re-adjusted their policies to the times. The Commonwealth is one example in this regard with hardly, if any, protest expressed by the post-colonial societies for similar atrocities committed during the colonial times. India, for instance, hardly mentions about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre ordered by the British Colonel Reginald Dwyer. While British Prime Minister David Cameroon visited the site in 2003 and expressed that this massacre was a “deeply shameful event”, he declined to apologise explicitly, although this has not led to any political discomfort in contemporary relations between the UK and India. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, in a speech at Oxford University in July, had exhorted UK to atone for the colonial wrongs.

Wartime history, then, has become an emotional issue in some states like China and Korea today to the extent that bilateral political relations nose-dive at the mention of the past historical experiences.

India’s response

bose-japanSeventy years ago, India had exhibited a complex view. Three main trends are visible at this time. Firstly, the outbreak of the World War II dragged India into the war efforts as the then Governor General of British India declared the country as a warring state. The Congress Party, which was then ruling in several Indian states, opposed the British government’s move to seek India’s help for the war efforts. Nevertheless, India sent over 2 million soldiers to fight for the British in different theatres. Subhash Chandra Bose (1897-1945) opposed Indian role in the war in support of the colonial power. In 1941, Bose escaped to Germany and appealed against the British Indian authorities. Bose went to Japan to seek military assistance against British India. While Bose sought Japanese assistance, the latter’s interference was curtailed in the INA and other organs.

Secondly, some Indians took a purely legal position on the war-time events. To enquire into the war crimes, two tribunals were constituted – the Nuremburg and Tokyo tribunals. Justice Radhabinod Pal made a dissenting note in the Tokyo tribunal. In his note, although he criticised the Japanese for their “atrocious” behaviour at Nanjing, Justice Pal held that “each and every one of the accused must be found not guilty of each and every one of the charges in the indictment and should be acquitted of all those charges”.

A third trend in the Indian response was the Congress Party’s support to the nationalist movement in China, reflected in the correspondence between Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Chiang Kaishek, Song Qingling and others. The Communist Parties in India and China also had fraternal cooperation. As a result India decided to send in 1938 a medical team of five doctors to the war-torn China. Of these Dr Dwarakanath Kotnis stayed back till his death in 1942 and served the wounded at Dr Bethune International Peace Hospital built by the Eighth Route Army in the anti-Japanese wars.

Nationalism and Reconciliation

Thus rising nationalism and geopolitical considerations of current day, Japan, China and South Korea, are influencing the historical issues. The positions of leaders of the yore, Mao Zedong and Jawaharlal Nehru, indicated a pragmatic adjustment to the previous colonial rulers in order to usher in peace and stability. While focusing on the then pressing issues of national re-construction, these leaders sought to forgive and forget the past events. However, today the increasing contest between powers in the region – as reflected in the rising nationalism and right-wing sentiments, higher defence allocations, military modernization and outreach – have contributed to spirals of tension. In a similar background, however different the context is, given the intensity of animosity between China and Japan, Nelson Mandela’s national reconciliation project offers some ideas.

srikanth(Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. An eminent expert on China and the author of several books on India-China relations, he received the K. Subrahmanyam Award in 2010 for Excellence in Research in Strategic and Security Studies.)