Saturday, Jul 22, 2017, 8:50 AM CST – China


Parade Diplomacy


With its grand military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the victory of China’s war against Japanese aggression, China reasserts its position in the postwar international order

Medals of honor decorating the uniform of one of the veterans participating in the military parade Photo by AFP

World War II veterans take part in the parade Photo by IC

A local dons a historical PLA uniform for the parade Photo by Hou Yu

People wait for the parade to begin from the balcony of a residential building Photo by Hou Yu

Thousands turned out to watch the proceedings Photo by Hou Yu

A total of 12,000 troops, 500 units of military equipment and 200 aircraft paraded through and over Beijing’s Tian’anmen Square on September 3 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the victory of what China officially calls the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War. The event was perhaps the single most politically important event in China this year.

For many Western analysts, the parade was yet another example of China flexing its muscles. However, being its first military parade to commemorate the end of World War II, the significance of this highly anticipated and carefully staged event extends far beyond the variety of military hardware on display.

To understand the message China was trying to convey to domestic and international audiences alike, one must take into consideration the history underpinning the ceremony, especially when China’s view of the war is becoming more, not less, important in shaping the country’s perspective on its current interactions with the world.

‘Forgotten Ally’

The Chinese government has stated that one of the major goals of the parade was to reassert China’s historical contribution to the war and its role as a cofounder of the current international order.

A commonly held sentiment among the Chinese is that the West has downplayed, if not forgotten, China’s contribution to the World War II victory, an issue extensively covered by Oxford professor Rana Mitter in his international bestseller Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II.

According to Mitter, China was the first country to fight fascism, holding back 600,000 Japanese troops during the war and preventing Japan from turning toward the Soviet Union, Southeast Asia and British India. China played an important role in the final victory of the Allied forces.

Japan launched its full-scale invasion of China’s interior in 1937 and gained control of much of China’s eastern seaboard, while the Nationalists (KMT) and Communists (CPC), led by Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, respectively, forged a temporary alliance and carried on their resistance inland.

It is estimated that 70 percent of Japan’s 1.95 million casualties suffered between 1937 and 1945 took place on Chinese battlefields, at great cost to China. China also sent hundreds of thousands of troops to fight against Japan’s aggression in both Myanmar and India after the Pacific War broke out.

Mitter estimated that 14 million Chinese died during the war, including 2.2 million soldiers. About 100 million more were displaced during hostilities. According to Chinese archives, China suffered far greater casualties, with more than 35 million war dead, including over 3 million soldiers. Even adopting Mitter’s more conservative estimate, among the Allied forces, China’s total losses were second only to those of the Soviet Union, which bore 27 million casualties.

However, after the CPC defeated the KMT in a bloody civil war following the end of World War II and the KMT fled to Taiwan, the history of China as an ally of the Western forces was largely forgotten by those same Western countries during the Cold War. China is still resentful that its sacrifices and contributions have not translated into political status in today’s world, especially when Japan has taken advantage of the Cold War environment to emerge both politically and economically as one of the US’s closest allies.

Many Chinese people attribute recent historical revisionism in Japan, with a small number of extremists even claiming the Rape of Nanking never happened, to the US’s postwar policies towards Japan. Not only did the US not prosecute the emperor of Japan, whom many believe to be responsible for launching the war at the time, it also allowed many Japanese wartime officials to enter Japan’s postwar government.

Given the recent diplomatic rows between China and Japan, it is not a surprise that the most frequently cited example of a wartime official who should not have regained power is Nobusuke Kishi, grandfather of Japan’s current prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Kishi served for three years as a senior official in the puppet regime of Manchukuo installed by the Japanese in northeastern China. Kishi was initially charged with war crimes, but was subsequently cleared and went on to become prime minister in 1957.

Such resentment is particularly acute now, because China has recently been repeatedly accused of challenging the postwar international order, especially in regards to maritime disputes with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and conflict with Southeast Asian countries over the South China Sea.

China has based its territorial claims in both cases on its position as a major World War II victor. China considers the Diaoyu Islands a part of territories that the Allied forces agreed would be returned to China after the war. As for the South China Sea, China’s claim is partly based on a map drawn and declared in 1947 by the KMT-led Republic of China government after recovering some major islands in the South China Sea from Japan.

“The lack of recognition has led some to wrongfully believe that China wishes to challenge the current postwar international order that it helped build in the first place,” commented a Xinhua News Agency editorial published on August 21.

By asserting China’s role as a cofounder of the postwar world structure, China tries to present itself as a defender of the current order, not its challenger.

“China is... arguing that if American contributions to the defeat of Japan in 1945 entitle it to a continuing presence in the region, then China’s own sacrifices also grant it a role,” wrote Rana Mitter in an August 31 commentary published on the CNN website.

Beyond the Party Line

Despite the resentment, most Chinese experts also admit that China itself is equally responsible for letting its wartime contributions fade from the historical record. As the KMT and CPC competed to legitimize their right to rule China during the civil war and to represent the nation after the war, both sides tried to downplay the other’s role during World War II. While the KMT accused the CPC fighters of “running but not fighting,” the battles fought by KMT-led troops were hardly mentioned on the Chinese mainland for several decades after the conflict.

It was not until the late 1980s, when China was shifting focus from ideological struggle to economic development, that a more broad-based reassessment of the war was allowed. Along with the rise of nationalism, the wartime contributions of the KMT government and its troops have been gradually rehabilitated.

Such “rediscovery” of this piece of Chinese history has led to a boom in research and publications exploring the KMT-led campaigns against Japanese aggression, to the extent that today’s CPC often has to defend its own contributions in the war.

In a 2005 speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, China’s then-President Hu Jintao stated that “the KMT led the fight at the front, while the CPC led the fight from behind enemy lines, forming a common strategic front against the enemy,” an assessment which has since developed into the new official interpretation of wartime history.

 In the following years, the public clamored for not only the official recognition and compensation of the surviving KMT veterans, but also for the reassessment of China’s wartime history from a more nationalistic perspective rather than from one based on political ideology.

The fact that celebration of Victory Day in Taiwan was gradually minimized from 1988 to 2008 under the administrations of former top Taiwanese leaders Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian, both known for their pro-independence and pro-Japan stances, also injected some urgency into Beijing’s situation and encouraged the leadership to adopt the political legacy of Chinese soldiers fallen during the war.

Although the KMT reasserted its role in the war against the Japanese after regaining leadership of Taiwan in 2008, it has been taking an increasingly ambiguous attitude toward celebrating the event under a political culture demanding a more “Taiwan-centric” perspective. Instead of fully embracing the political legacy of the wartime KMT government led by Chiang Kai-shek that represented China as a whole at the time, the commemoration appeared to be more about averring the legitimacy of the KMT’s right to rule Taiwan.

For example, to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender this year, the KMT also held a military parade. But instead of holding the event on one of the dates that fit the Allies’ narrative – such as August 15, when Japan announced its surrender; September 2, marking the ceremony of Japan’s surrender; or September 3, the official Victory Day first declared by Chiang Kai-shek in 1945 – the parade was held on July 4. Many believe the choice of date stemmed from a desire not to antagonize Japan.

Moreover, perhaps also as a result of pressure from Japan, the Taiwanese government dropped the term “War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression” that was originally part of the parade’s official title mere days before the parade took place. As a result, many Western analysts interpreted the parade as a warning to Beijing rather than a remembrance of the Chinese soldiers who fell during the war.

 This has allowed the CPC to become more assertive in claiming the political legacy of wartime contributions made by Chinese troops from all sides. “Chinese people as a whole fought the war against Japan during World War II,” said Luo Yuan, a leading international strategist with the People’s Liberation Army. “It is time to go beyond the party rivalry [between the KMT and the CPC].“

 According to Luo, China’s current government has both the right and the responsibility to pay tribute to the sacrifices and contributions made by all Chinese soldiers who fought during the war, regardless of their party affiliation. “The CPC now recognizes the historical role the KMT played as China’s legitimate representative as well as its contribution during World War II,” Luo added.

This explains why the Chinese government has been avoiding being drawn into a debate over who has made more contributions during the war in the run-up to the parade. For example, as Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou contended that the KMT led the resistance both on the battlefield and behind enemy lines, Chinese defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun responded that the war was a “great victory” for all Chinese people.

By downplaying partisan rivalry, China also aims to reconnect its current position in the international order with the country’s wartime contributions.

Victor, not Victim?

Along with China’s reassertion of its part in the Allies’ victory, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the parade also focused on China as a World War II victor, not a victim.

During his speech, Xi referenced China’s wartime suffering only once, but he mentioned the words “victor,” “victory” and “triumph” a dozen or more times. “The victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression is the first complete victory won by China in its resistance against foreign aggression in modern times,” Xi declared in his parade speech.

The speech is quite a shift from China’s earlier rhetoric regarding wartime history. In the past, China tended to take a victimized perspective, focusing on urging Japan to face its wartime atrocities. More recently, however, China has adopted a more holistic and triumphal approach that focuses on a broader agenda and warns Japan not to challenge the postwar order.

Establishing China as a war “victor” rather than a “victim” is an idea aimed at both domestic and international audiences. Domestically, the focus on being “victors” is in accordance with the Chinese leadership’s keynote concept of “the reinvigoration of Chinese civilization.”

By presenting Japan’s surrender as a national triumph and displaying strong leadership, a disciplined military and advanced weaponry throughout the parade, Chinese leaders tried to infuse the country with a sense of national pride and dignity. They were sending a message that the days of “national humiliation” are long gone, and that China has regained its past glory and its rightful position in the region as one of the major powers of the world.

“This great triumph... put an end to China’s national humiliation of suffering successive defeats at the hands of foreign aggressors in modern times,” Xi said in his speech. “This great triumph re-established China as a major country in the world and won the Chinese people the respect of all peace-loving people around the world. This great triumph opened up bright prospects for the great renewal of the Chinese nation and set our ancient country on a new journey after gaining rebirth.”

“By holding a military parade on a day other than [the Chinese holiday] National Day, China, as a rising power, aims to send a message that it is ready to relinquish its ‘victimhood,’” read a commentary in China Daily, something repeatedly stressed by Xi during his speech.

On Message

Understanding the parade’s intended messages is crucial to understanding strategic goals behind China’s assertiveness over the past few years. “The real message of the parade is that China seeks an appropriate position in the international order that is comparable to its contribution,“ said Major-General Zhang Shiping, former director of the Strategy Department of the Academy of Military Sciences.

On one hand, by highlighting the alliance China once held with the West during World War II and stressing its position as a defender of world peace, China is assuring the West that its more assertive foreign policy is not an attempt to overhaul the US-dominated world order.

On the other hand, by asserting its position as a victor in the war and displaying its determination to defend what it considers its rightful interests, China also shows its aspirations of having a bigger role in reshaping the regional order.

Regardless of how the US and China’s neighboring countries interpreted the parade’s message, it should be taken seriously, so that China and its rivals can better understand each other’s strategic intentions and allow for self-restraint on all sides when it comes to resolving major differences.


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