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The Monitor's View

Japan-China island clash: Peace in a common history

The island clash between Japan and China, as well as other island disputes in East Asia, could be more easily resolved if neighbors shared a common view of history.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / August 19, 2012

Anti-Japan protesters march in Chengdu, in southwestern China's Sichuan province, Sunday. Japanese activists swam ashore and raised flags Sunday on an island claimed by both Japan and China, fanning an escalating territorial dispute between the two Asian powers.

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Thousands of Chinese rose up in protest against Japan on Sunday, hitting out at Japanese cars and businesses. It was the third such protest in seven years following clashes at sea over each country’s claim to a group of small islands.

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The violent outburst of nationalism in China – echoed more quietly and peacefully among Japanese – came just days after South Korea provoked outrage in Japan over a visit by its president to disputed islands in the Sea of Japan.

And China has also recently stoked protests in the Philippines and Vietnam over its attempt to take control of small islands in the South China Sea.

To some degree, these clashes in East Asia are driven by each nation’s desire to tap the rights to seabed oil and fisheries around the islands or by weak leaders seeking to boost their standing by using patriotic anger.

But underlying the fervor over the territorial disputes are deep emotions tied to the region’s history – especially over how each country interprets that history.

Quarrels over the record of past aggression by China against Vietnam, for example, have colored how the two neighbors regard their clashes over the Paracel Islands. But it is the raw feelings over Japan’s early-20th-century aggression in Asia that creates the most worry that the string of clashes over the Senkaku Islands (known as Diaoyu Islands in China) might result in serious military confrontation.

To peacefully resolve these island disputes will require a willingness by Asian nations, especially Japan, to agree on a historical record as well as a recognition of how much each country has sought peace and progressed in recent decades.

Germany serves as a model of a postwar nation that embraced its victims, made restitution, and showed contrition through numerous heart-felt apologies. The accuracy of its history books regarding the Nazi era – or rather the true empathy displayed by many Germans – has helped Germany become a leader of the European Union.

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