The Historical Divide That Underlies Current Tensions in East Asia

The tit for tat demonstrations by Chinese and Japanese activists over the ongoing sovereignty dispute of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are representative of a deeper historical and ideological divide between the two states.

he demonstrations over the contested ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands coincided with news of another event this week that causes ongoing friction between the two states. Yet another pilgrimage to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which according to the Shinto tradition houses the souls of Japanese war dead, was made, this time by two Japanese cabinet ministers. While seemingly unrelated, these two events, and the surrounding controversies, are both results of Japan’s imperial past, China’s ‘century of shame’, and the conflicting accounts of these eras by the Chinese and Japanese establishments.

[quote align=”center” color=”#b64736″]While seemingly unrelated, these two events, and the surrounding controversies, are both results of Japan’s imperial past, China’s ‘century of shame’, and the conflicting accounts of these eras[/quote]

The long period of instability following the fall of the last Chinese imperial dynasty, the Qing, in 1911 provided fruitful grounds for a rising Imperial Japan’s expansionary policies. In search of raw materials and export markets Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, taking control of a large swathe of Chinese territory while its nationalist government was distracted by the ongoing civil war with the communists. In July 1937 full scale war broke out between the two states. By the end of the year Beijing, Shanghai, and, then capital, Nanjing, had fallen to the Japanese. The mass murder and terrorising of the population of Nanjing after its fall by Japanese soldiers, known as ‘the rape of Nanking’, is the most notorious atrocity of the Japanese imperial period. High profile visits to the Yasukuni Shrine enrage many Chinese nationals, as the shrine not only purports to hold the souls of some of the perpetrators of these atrocities, but also contains a war museum that largely glosses over these events, framing Japanese imperialism as a selfless drive to oust Western influence from Asia and create an ‘Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’.

[quote align=”center” color=”#b64736″]Large concessions have been made by the Chinese government over territorial issues before[/quote]

After the Japanese defeat, as part of the post World War II San Francisco peace treaty, territories previously occupied by Japan were returned to their respective national sovereignties. China claims that the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, as part of Taiwan, reverted to Chinese ownership at this point. However Japan claims that the islands were not a part of the territory it relinquished in the San Francisco treaty, and that administrative control of the islands reverted from the United States to Japan as part of a broader parcel of islands in 1971.

The Diaoyu/Senkaku islands issue is not simply a territorial dispute for either country. Large concessions have been made by the Chinese government over territorial issues before; similar disputes have been resolved in recent decades between China and Russia, Kazakhstan, and other Central Asian states. For China it is a matter of national pride, and is symbolic of China’s emergence from the ‘century of humiliation’ which saw the state fractured and exploited by a variety of foreign powers. For Japan, the dispute speaks to a fear of relative decline. The idea that any Japanese relinquishing of territory will result in a slippery slope of future concessions, to Chinese power in particular but also in similar ongoing disputes with South Korea and Russia, gradually dissipating Japanese territorial holdings outside of the home islands.

As Maoist ideology has been abandoned by the Chinese Communist Party, in favour of pro-market economic reforms, outward focused nationalism has increasingly underpinned Chinese political cohesion and domestic stability. Japanese historical revisionism regarding its occupation of China, as represented by the regular pilgrimage of high level government officials to the Yasukuni Shrine, provides fodder for this nationalism. While the Chinese government is pressured by its outraged constituents to take a tough stance towards Japan on this issue it will, lest that anger be directed inward. The Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute will not be resolved without violence while the historical dispute embodied by the Yasukuni controversy continues

by Stuart Rollo

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