Unfinished legacy of war shadows Asia

By Rana Mitter Source:Global Times Published: 2015-4-1 20:43:01

History is one of the major reasons that East Asia's order is not yet settled. Some seven decades after the WWII ended, many in China and Japan disagree over whose understanding of the fighting is the most accurate. Why should the events of so long ago hold such sway in today's East Asia? As the 70th anniversary of the war's end approaches, we must reflect on the "unfinished business" of the now long-distant end of WWII in 1945. 

When Hitler's Germany surrendered in May 1945, a chapter of history came to an end. The Cold War would freeze much of the continent of Europe, but both Western and Eastern blocs came to agree on one shared aspect of their understanding of history: Nazi Germany was a menace to European security and a state with a profoundly evil domestic policy, which meant that it had to be defeated. No such agreement over the meaning of recent history ever took place in East Asia. There was no Asian Yalta or Potsdam. 

In 1945, China's role in world affairs was greatly boosted. The nomination of China as one of then US president Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Four Policemen" (with the US, the USSR, and Britain) was a major rise in prestige for a country that had still been subject to colonial rule on significant parts of its territories at the outbreak of war with Japan in 1937.

However, the factor that changed the whole dynamic of the region was the fall of the Chinese Nationalists and the establishment of the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong.

The subsequent policy of non-recognition between the PRC and the US set the stage for a historical settlement that still affects the region today.

Unlike in Europe, 1945 became unfinished business in Asia. The idea of a common narrative of reconciliation and mutual understanding in the region was admirable but hard to implement.

Part of the necessary architecture, a series of mutually agreed treaties leading to robust institutions within the region, was absent.  Even the official end of the war in Asia was not mutually agreed between the major actors.

The official end of the hostilities between the US and Japan was signed at San Francisco in 1952. But China was absent. Although Cold War tensions between the USSR and the US remained grave during much of this period, the two sides were always at least in diplomatic contact.

The absence of contact between the US and China during this period made the establishment of shared norms, or even areas of mutually agreed difference, impossible.

The situation was complex but the results were clear. No mutually agreed system of institutions emerged in Asia: no NATO and EU, no Warsaw Pact and Comecon. Institutions such as ASEAN did not have the robust structure of NATO. Elsewhere in the region, the hopes that emerged at the 1955 Bandung Conference for a new non-aligned Afro-Asian bloc of postcolonial powers produced more rhetoric than substance. The rapprochement with the US and Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972 meant that in the 1970s and 1980s, China's role changed significantly, but Beijing was then more concerned with domestic than international policy.

The ending of the Cold War in 1989-91 became another turning point. And by the turn of the new century, China has felt a greater desire to reshape the region, and has returned repeatedly to the legacy of one particular transformative event: the second World War in Asia.

This has become particularly noticeable in the past year or so, when reminders of the second World War have become an increasingly notable part of China's foreign policy rhetoric. 

As China, Japan and the other powers of East Asia seek to find more consensus on what happened during the second World War in Asia, it is important that all sides understand how controversial the wartime events remain. 

The one thing that is certain is that the debate over history in the region will grow in significance in the next few years. Memory of China's wartime contributions to the liberation of Asia will become an increasingly important part of a shared understanding of modern history.

However, it is important that all sides treat the meaning of that contribution responsibly and with an understanding that Asia must never again be drawn into war.

The author is director of the University of Oxford China Centre. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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