Fans of author George RR Martin will be familiar with the phrase “winter is coming”. In his bestselling novels – now shown in the TV series Game of Thrones – it’s the rather gloomy motto of the combative Stark family. The words connote a warning of dark days ahead and the need for constant vigilance.
Less expected is to see the same phrase crop up in discussion of East Asian politics. But this week the Hong Kong-based newspaper Ming Pao did just that, saying that “winter is coming” in Sino-Japanese relations. The comment was made in reference to Abe Shinzo’s resounding victory in elections at the weekend and what it might mean for his goal of amending Japan’s pacifist constitution.
In an editorial the China Daily suggested that the Abe government is looking to realise “its covert ambitions for a fully-fledged military”, while Xinhua ran an article on Sunday headlined “Japan’s future direction is worrisome”.
“Abe will likely work toward constitutional revision and recasting Tokyo’s wartime history with a less apologetic tone,” Professor Liu Jiangyong, an expert in international relations at Tsinghua University, told the South China Morning Post, while the New Oriental Morning Post was also worried that Abe’s “right wing” ideas would increase tensions with China.
Relations between the two countries remain tense. Last week Japan’s defence ministry noted that Chinese warships had passed through the narrow strait that divides northern Japan and Russia for the first time. This was seen as muscle-flexing by most onlookers, with a retired Chinese admiral telling local media that such manoeuvres in the Sea of Japan carried “a certain level of threat”. But Beijing has preferred to complain about provocations from the other side, especially when a campaigning Abe visited two small islets near a group of disputed islands which China claims as the Diaoyu and Japan says is sovereign territory called the Senkaku (see WiC179).
Asahi Shimbun said it was the first visit to the neighbouring islets of Ishigaki and Miyako by an incumbent prime minister since 1972.
Abe was then quoted by the Kyodo news agency as saying he would “never make concessions” over the islands and would protect “our country’s territorial lands, water and air space”. If the trip was intended as a message, it hit the mark. The China Daily was soon fuming that Abe was “staging provocative shows that are alienating Japan from its neighbours.” It went on to warn that he was “leading Japan up a blind alley, where it will be a pariah in the international community” before adding that China wanted to shelve the dispute and jointly develop nearby resources. Then it added a hint of steel: “There is no need for China and Japan to go to war to settle the dispute. But Japan must take care that its military build-up does not lead in that direction.”
Talk of war takes us back to a longstanding theme: Chinese resentment at Japan’s invasion in the 1930s. The era has cast a long shadow, which makes the timing of a new book on the subject more telling. Written by Oxford University history professor Rana Mitter, China’s War with Japan 1937-1945 is the first detailed account of the conflict in English. And as Mitter points out in his opening chapter, it’s difficult to understand the current tension between the two countries without comprehending the horrors that took place: most infamously the massacre in Nanjing and the pulverising of Chongqing by aerial bombing.
In total around 20 million Chinese died in the conflict and 100 million became refugees. “China’s most fraught international relationship is still with Japan,” writes Mitter, “and the war remains central to the present friction between them. Even for generations born many years after 1945, Chinese nationalist pride is shaped by anger at Japan’s invasion of their country.”
In the coming years the rest of the world will need to understand this period better, knowing, for example, what it means when the Chinese talk proudly about Taierzhuang: China’s first military victory against Japan after a week-long battle in 1938 that saw as many as 20,000 Japanese soldiers killed.
Mitter’s book is a reasonable place to start…
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