China has put Abe in a quandary

July 14, 2015 10:25
China has invited Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to attend activities marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Photo: Bloomberg

Since early this year, Beijing has been capitalizing on the fact that 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and has repeatedly sought to embarrass Japan by reminding the world of its aggression against China in the 1930s and 1940s.

China is also making use of the anniversary to show off its newfound status as a world power by staging a military parade on Sept. 3.

Beijing has just announced that it has invited Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan to attend the celebration activities.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry simultaneously announced that the leaders of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have accepted the invitation. So far, no western country has announced its participation in the Chinese celebrations.

By inviting Japan, China has put Abe in a quandary. If the Japanese leader accepts, he would be in the humiliating position of attending a public event to mark Japan’s defeat while at the same time celebrating China’s rise as a military power.

But if he declines, he will be vulnerable to oft-repeated Chinese charges of an unwillingness to face up to Japan’s wartime past and its history of aggression against its neighbors.

The Japanese government has not announced whether Abe will accept the invitation. The Japanese leader may well seek to adopt the “Merkel model” under which Chancellor Angela Merkel in May declined to attend ceremonies marking Russia’s victory over Germany, but did lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with President Vladimir Putin to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of hostilities.

Merkel wasn’t the only western leader to stay away from the anniversary events. In fact, western leaders boycotted the ceremonies because of Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine.

A Merkel-type resolution could actually suit both China and Japan. The Chinese leader Xi Jinping, after all, is scheduled to pay a state visit to the United States in September and, if he first hosts a visit by Abe, he would be in a position to say to Washington that tensions in East Asia were ebbing.

The United States has been critical of China for rising tensions in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

At the same time, Abe – whose support rating in Japan has been dropping – would also be in a position to tell his domestic critics that he is successfully mending fences with China if he holds talks with Xi.

Much depends on how Abe handles the anniversary of the Japanese surrender on Aug. 15. The premier is scheduled to deliver a major address, and attention will focus on whether he will apologize for Japan’s wartime activities.

Abe has said that he will express “remorse”, a position he repeated last weekend while meeting South Korean politicians. But he is likely to put emphasis on postwar Japan’s record as a peace-loving nation.

So how the Japanese leader is treated in China may well depend on what he says between now and September.

Beijing has seized on the 70th anniversary to depict itself as a victor in the war even though the Communists did not gain power until four years after the war ended.

It was the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek that bore the brunt of the war with Japan. Now, however, the Communists are claiming credit.

Taiwan’s leader, President Ma Ying-jeou, recently said that the Kuomintang, not the Communist Party, was mainly responsible for the victory against Japan.

Asked to comment, the Chinese Foreign Ministry merely said that there was a “united struggle of all compatriots of the Chinese nation” and that the victory “should be commemorated and remembered by all Chinese”.

However, that same day, the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily published an article calling for remembering history and again asserting that “under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, the whole nation made concerted efforts … and jointly resisted foreign aggression”.

This deliberate misremembering of history, like most things in contemporary China, serves a political purpose. The Communist party is now calling on Kuomintang veterans in Taiwan – erstwhile enemies in the Chinese civil war in the 1940s – to join in the victory celebrations in Beijing in September.

Last month, Taiwan’s defense ministry asked veterans not to attend the Beijing events and stressed that victory over Japan had been achieved by the Nationalist government and not by that of the People’s Republic, which did not exist at the time.

It is true that history should be remembered. Ignorance of history is dangerous, but arguably, the danger is even greater to have a political party control history.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.