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(DV) Whitehouse: China-Japan -- What's Behind the Growing Conflict?







China-Japan: What’s Behind the Growing Conflict?
by David Whitehouse
May 5, 2005
First Published in Socialist Worker

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For three weekends in April, Chinese cities were rocked by anti-Japanese protests organized with the tacit approval of the Beijing government. In one incident on April 16, Shanghai police stood by as a crowd of 10,000 young Chinese pelted the Japanese consulate with stones and paint bombs -- after trashing Japanese cars and restaurants.

The immediate spur to the protests was the Japanese government’s approval of a junior high school textbook that whitewashes Japanese atrocities committed against Chinese and other Asians from the 1930s through the Second World War. But Chinese government media outlets had already stirred up anti-Japanese feelings for weeks previously -- in response to Japan’s bid to join the United Nations (UN) Security Council.

As many observers noted, the mounting friction is a symptom of China’s attempt to assert political clout to match its growing economic power -- which, by some measures, is already greater than Japan’s. But the conflict is also a product of Japan’s own attempt to assert itself.

Joining the Security Council is only one way that Japan seeks to raise its international status. Japanese troops -- which since the end of the Second World War have been constitutionally bound to “self-defense” duties -- have been dispatched in recent years on “humanitarian” and UN “peacekeeping” missions to Cambodia, Mozambique, East Timor, Indonesia and Iraq.

The Japanese force in Iraq includes 530 military police and engineers engaged in reconstruction--a service to the U.S. occupiers that is calculated to win Japan a place in Iraq’s newly privatized oil business.

In February, Japan expanded its concept of “self-defense” to include military defense -- jointly with the U.S. -- of Taiwan, a Chinese island that Japan colonized at end of the nineteenth century and that has been a rival to mainland China since the 1949 revolution.

Inside Japan, the rewriting of textbooks is part of a broader campaign to promote nationalism. Tokyo’s mayor, who belongs to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), now forces teachers to lead their classes in an anthem that was earlier discarded because of its militarism. President Junichiro Koizumi and LDP members also insist on praying at Yasukuni, a shrine to Japanese war dead that includes war criminals and portrays Japan’s colonization and conquest of Asian neighbors as a noble effort to free Asia from Western dominance.

The new textbook itself covers the Nanjing massacre of 1937-38 -- where 20,000 women were raped and 300,000 civilians and prisoners killed in the Chinese city of Nanjing -- as an “incident” where “there were many deaths and injuries among civilians caused by the Japanese army.” News about the textbook provoked outrage among other Asian victims of Japanese aggression, sparking demonstrations in Vietnam and South Korea, and official condemnations from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

The cynicism of Japan’s politicians is easily matched by China’s rulers. They relaxed police repression to allow the anti-Japanese protests to continue for weeks -- long enough to send a signal to Japan -- and only reined them in for fear that they would begin to make demands on the government.

Chinese authorities were also playing regional power politics on other fronts. In the midst of the anti-Japanese protests, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao sought to build closer connections with India. As a sign of warming relations, the two Asian giants agreed to recognize each other’s seizures of other people’s lands -- China’s of Tibet and India’s of Sikkim.

Then, at the end of the month, China welcomed the leader of Taiwan’s Guomindang (GMD) party, the first visit by an official of this former U.S.-backed ruling party of Taiwan since 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party drove it out of mainland China. In March, China threatened military force if Taiwan declares formal independence from the mainland. By welcoming the GMD, which favors a “one-China policy,” China sought to undermine the position of Taiwan’s ruling party, which favors independence.

Tensions with Japan may cool following a 55-minute meeting in Jakarta on April 23 between Koizumi and Chinese President Hu Jintao. In Jakarta, Koizumi publicly reaffirmed the terms of a 1995 apology for wartime atrocities -- at the same time that 80 members of Japan’s parliament, including a cabinet member, visited the Yasukuni shrine.

Japan is a major investor in China, and the two countries have become each other’s biggest trading partners. In the future, these connections are likely to draw the two countries into periodic spells of peace, in between outbreaks of conflict over whether Japan -- and its allies in Washington -- or China is to be the dominant power in Asia.

David Whitehouse is a correspondent for Socialist Worker. This article first appeared on the SW website (  Thanks to Alan Maass.

Other Articles by David Whitehouse

* Struggles Explode Throughout China