In mid-February, as part of the plans for his official visit to Germany, Chinese President Xi Jinping asked to visit one of Berlin’s best-known sites: Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The request was declined when it became clear that Xi wanted to use the visit to draw a contrast between Germany’s repentance for Nazism and the alleged refusal of Japan to apologize for its war crimes in China. “The Germans are really uncomfortable with this kind of thing,” a diplomatic source said. “They don’t like China constantly comparing them with Japan and going on about the war.”
World War II parallels are back in fashion. Hillary Clinton, for example, recently compared Russia’s actions in Crimea with those of Hitler in the Sudetenland. But the use of pointed wartime analogies has really taken off in East Asia. One of the most striking geopolitical developments of the last few months was the sudden Chinese obsession with the seventieth anniversary of the communiqué that ended the Cairo Conference of 1943. This Allied conference marked the first, and only, occasion when a non-European leader—Chiang Kai-shek—was granted equal status with major Western leaders—Roosevelt and Churchill. But it was the declaration at the end of the conference that has drawn the attention of contemporary Chinese policymakers. “Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914,” it declared, and “all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and The Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China.”
These passages are now being used by China to add substance to its claim to the small, disputed, and uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that China calls the Diaoyu and Japan the Senkaku. There is a particular irony in China’s claim that a concession made to the Chinese Communist Party’s old enemy, Chiang Kai-shek, might now be used to boost a claim in the twenty-first century. But above all, the dispute shows that in Asia, the legacy of 1945 is unfinished business. The comprehensive settling of debts, geopolitical and emotional, that began in Europe and the US in that year never came to pass in Asia. China became an isolated Communist giant, Japan a close American cold war ally.
As a result, in contrast with France and Germany, two very different versions of history emerged about the war years in Asia. In China, the war was tied purely to the rise to power of the Communist Party. In Japan, the right wing promoted the idea that there had been something noble about the war, and that it had had the goal of liberating Asia from Western imperialism. The…
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