Tuesday, March 11, 2014

China looks to Germany to beat up Japan

By Jason Overdorf

Newsweek Japan (March 2014)

For decades, a single adage was the key to good diplomatic relations in Europe: Don't talk about the war. But unfortunately for Germany and Japan, it looks like Beijing never got the memo.

That's right: On his March visit to Berlin, Chinese president Xi Jinping plans to talk about the war every chance he gets.

Xi wants the trip to have a strong focus on World War II. His team even pushed for a press event at Berlin's Holocaust Memorial – which Berlin rejected.

The idea is not to criticize Germany for the crimes of the Nazis. Rather, Xi hopes to praise Germany to the heavens for its 30-odd years of soul searching – by contrast extending China's dogged criticism of Japan for failing to apologize as often or as abjectly as Beijing thinks it should.

But there's more behind the scheme than an attempt to get Tokyo to build a memorial to Nanjing – and the plan is bound to rub Germany the wrong way, says professor James Davis, director of the political science department at Switzerland's University of St. Gallen.

“Germany has nothing to gain from being drawn into China's bid for regional influence and certainly does not want to be put in a position of having to choose between the Chinese and Japanese positions,” Davis said.

For China, it's not the first time. Chinese leaders have stepped up their references to World War II in recent years, not only criticizing Japan for war crimes committed in Nanjing. On a 2012 visit to Poland, for example, then-premier Wen Jiabao evoked an oft-repeated truism with an eye toward Japan, saying “Only those who remember history can build a good future.”

Similarly, in January of this year China built a museum in Harbin to Ahn Jung-geun, the Korean assassin who gunned down the Japanese governor of Korea in 1909, in a bid to use Japan's imperial past to drive a wedge between today's Tokyo and Seoul.

China-watchers say the battle over history has a broader importance. By focussing attention on wartime atrocities, Beijing hopes to squash any ambitions Tokyo may have toward re-building Japan's military or embracing a leadership role in regional foreign policy – even as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bumbles toward closing the books on the war with moves such as his controversial visit to the Yasukini shrine in December. And every sentence devoted to Japan's past crimes both justifies and draws attention away from China's own massive military expansion and ambitions toward regional hegemony.

“China pushed the anti-Japan line in foreign policy to make Japan defensive in the region, but China’s leaders also see limitations in over-playing the historical card as democrats, Tibetans and Uighurs may raise similar issues against the Chinese leadership later,” Srikanth Kondapalli, professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi said. “China is not reluctant to support German candidature for the UNSC, but vehemently opposes Japan. In China’s assessments a ‘normative’ Germany is better than a ‘normal’ Japan.”

That said, there's more behind Germany's refusal to fete him at the Holocaust Memorial than a reluctance to get in the middle of China's spat with Japan. And Xi's timing may favor Tokyo.

Leading recent negotiations in Ukraine and offering to send troops to the Central African Republic, Germany itself is finally moving to put the paralyzing memory of World War II behind it.

Along with the foreign ministers of France and Poland, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was instrumental in brokering a deal between the opposition and ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych last week.

German President Joachim Gauck has repeatedly called for Germany to abandon its post-war reticence and lead from the front in recent speeches.

Popular films like “Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter” and the rise of the so-called “finish line movement” suggest that Germans themselves are fed up with taking the blame for the crimes of their grandfathers – or great grandfathers.

And by taking a tough stance against Israeli settlements in the West Bank during her trip to Israel this week, Chancellor Angela Merkel showed that there are no holy cows – which could well bode ill for Xi's propaganda initiative.

“Chancellor Merkel has never shied away from reminding the Chinese of their human rights obligations and has not shied away from meeting the Dalai Lama, despite strong protests from Beijing,” said Davis.

“If the Chinese want to discuss the Nazis' imperialist foreign policy or racist domestic policy, Merkel can turn the sword around and address the meanings of those lessons for China.”