The right use of history in Asia’s future

As China plans a major event Sept. 3 to mark the anniversary of the end of World War II, it reveals much about differing paths for Asia. To prevent conflict, Asia must think less of power relationships and more of ideals that unite.

Paramilitary policemen and members of a gun salute team fire cannons during a training session for a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War Two, at a military base in Beijing, China, Aug. 1. China will hold the parade on Sept. 3.

For a few weeks earlier this year, Greece tried to revive memories of Germany’s Nazi past to gain an advantage in negotiations for another European bailout of the Greek economy. It didn’t work. A Europe seeking a better union is more focused on the future than the past, especially a past Germany left behind long ago.

“[I]t’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy,” says German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “But such provocations produce paralysis, not progress.”

Europe’s desire for bonding over bullying is a model for Asia, which remains largely disunited and a region where some countries still exploit historical wrongs to gain a geopolitical advantage. The tendency to use the past was especially true in 2015, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. China and the two Koreas have used the event against Japan while Japan has tried to address its neighbors’ concerns with speeches by both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Emperor Akihito. Their statements pegged to the anniversary offered variations on previous official apologies or expressions of remorse.

It is important to view these anniversary events not as conflicts over historical interpretations but as insights on how each country views the future of Asia. What sort of Asia is intended can be gleaned by how a country highlights aspects of history.

This is important for two reasons:

1. “The lion’s share of ... the 21st century is going to be written in Asia,” says Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under President Obama and an architect of the plan to “rebalance” American interests toward Asia.

2. “The fact of the matter is that the rules of the road are up for grabs in Asia,” says Charles Rivkin, US assistant secretary of State for economic and business affairs.

To most scholars, the history of Imperial Japan’s colonialism and aggression is not in dispute. Nor do many experts see today’s pacifist Japan as becoming warlike anytime soon. Polls of Japanese bear this out.

For its part, Japan used the anniversary to offer something new, saying “enough” in perpetually making apologies, especially on behalf of generations with no ties to past atrocities. It hopes China and South Korea will not continue to use history to stoke their nationalism or to ensure domestic legitimacy, especially as Japan officially made amends for its past when renewing ties with its former foes decades ago.

“We have the great responsibility to take the lessons of history deeply into our hearts, to carve out a better future, and to make all possible efforts for the peace and prosperity of Asia and the world,” Mr. Abe said in his speech.

For its part, China is capitalizing on the 70th anniversary in a big way. On Sept. 3 (the day after the date in 1945 that Japan signed its surrender), a giant military parade will be held in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It will mark China’s role in the victory, but, in the propaganda around the event, the ruling Communist Party has elevated its own role in the war far more than scholars would.

Yet that is not the point. Rather, the parade itself reflects the party’s view of what Asia should be. It has invited “major”world powers to each contribute 75 troops while smaller countries are being asked to send only three to seven troops. The parade’s makeup reflects other moves by China to put itself at the center of Asia’s universe, like a giant planet with satellites. A new development bank in Shanghai, for example, will largely be under China’s control.

In its demands on Japan for more atonement, China seeks a region defined by a relationship of big versus small powers. With a population a tenth the size of China’s, Japan must be put in its place. Greatness resides in size – the size of an economy or the size of a military.

This is an old strategy that the European Union has sought to end. And in a speech last year in Australia, Mr. Obama said that an effective order for Asia must be based “not on spheres of influence, or coercion, or intimidation where big nations bully the small – but on alliances of mutual security, international law, and international norms.”

The US remains the dominant military force in Asia, a reflection of its postwar commitment to the region, as well as its being the region’s largest source of foreign investment. It seeks a region defined not by power relationships but by the guiding principles of inclusiveness, transparency, and peaceful resolution of disputes.

“These are the rights of all nations. They are not abstractions, and nor are they subject to the whims of any one country,” said US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in a May speech.

For Asia to develop habits of cooperation, as the EU has done, China cannot build itself up by trying to use history to bring down potential rivals. Asia needs leaders who can lessen nationalism for the sake of universal ideals that unite and promote constructive behavior. That is where real power lies.

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