Japan’s embrace of American militarism in Asia-Pacific directed at China is perhaps the ultimate litmus test of Japanese sincerity about its past violations.
The differing response from the United States and China to Japanese premier Shinzo Abe’s wartime “apology” speech is revealing.
The American White House “welcomed” Abe’s statement of remorse for Japan’s war record, while China was far from placated. Chinese media rebuffed Abe’s “smart words” and “linguistic trickery” as not going far enough to make amends for Japanese crimes committed during the Sino-Japanese War and its overlapping Pacific War.
Given that China’s death toll – estimated at over 20 million – from Japan’s aggression and colonial tyranny is many times more than that suffered by the US and its Western allies during the Pacific War, it is understandable why China remains much more sensitive on the issue of wartime apologies.
Premier Abe made his televised address in Tokyo on the eve of Japan’s unconditional surrender 70 years ago this month. It was one of the most destructive wars of the 20th Century, which culminated in the dropping of two American atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
That the US carried out a supreme crime against humanity on the Japanese people in those bombings may also explain why Washington appears more magnanimous in accepting Abe’s words of remorse.
But there is much more to it. Washington has been engaged in a sinister military build-up in Asia-Pacific since President Obama announced his “Pivot to Asia” policy back in 2011. That military build-up – analogous to US-led NATO encirclement of Russia – is unmistakably directed at China.
Key to Washington’s low-intensity aggression towards China is the enlisting of other Asian nations into a US-led military alliance.
Japan along with South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar are components in this strategic American push for dominance over China.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and other Washington officials may assert that the United States is defending territorial interests of Asian “allies” against Chinese “expansion”. (Sounds familiar?)
The US continually refers to “peaceful settlement” of disputes under international law and “freedom of navigation”. But from China’s perspective, Washington’s large-scale militarisation in the region and its meddlesome interference in bilateral territorial disputes smack of aggression.
The problem for the US is that its Asian allies have, like China, also suffered immensely from Japan’s wartime past. Korea in particular was subjected to decades of brutal Japanese colonial rule during which at least 100,000 of its women were forced into sex slavery as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers.
South Korea, a long-time ally of the US, also chimed with China in expressing dissatisfaction over Japan’s latest supposed apology.
However, South Korea, has joined with Japan in assisting Washington’s renewed militarism in the region. US plans to install a missile “defence system” are being enabled by South Korea and Japan. The official US rationale is to defend its allies from nuclear-armed North Korea.
But, as with American rationalisations for its missile systems in Europe as being a defence against Iran, few people in China buy that explanation, just as Russia does not buy the purported American defence of Europe.
That is why Shinzo Abe appeared to be straining with a fine balancing act in his address. He did acknowledge suffering caused by Japan and expressed his personal grief. He mentioned Japanese aggression and colonial oppression and how women’s honour was violated.
But for all that, Abe’s account of his country’s war past sounded rather vague and unconvincing. He did not unequivocally state a personal apology, as two of his predecessors had. He even appeared to mitigate Japan’s military conquest in the context of reaction to Western colonial isolation of Japan.
Shinzo Abe, whose grandfather was a member of Japan’s war cabinet, is openly associated with nationalistic rightwing groups who reject accusations of Japanese war crimes. In the recent past, he has visited the Yasukuni war memorial where several Japanese war criminals are buried and which is a rallying site for Japan’s ultra nationalists.
Media reports say that the premier was not going to make any form of apology at the 70th anniversary, but that he was pressured by Washington to offer a token olive branch.
This is because Washington does not want to alienate its other Asian allies in South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam, by Japan gliding over its wartime past. Washington’s objective of building an anti-China alliance thus required some token admission of Japanese war guilt in order to appease the other Asian nations who are part of the American alliance against China.
Abe’s words of remorse may appear to be reaching out for reconciliation. And one can have sympathy with his appeal that future generations of Japanese should not be “pre-destined to make apologies” for a war that they had nothing to do with.
Nevertheless, actions speak louder than words. Abe vowed that Japan would never again use military force to settle disputes with its neighbours. He said that his country was working towards removing all nuclear weapons from the world.
However, the Japanese premier’s words do not square with the actions of the country under his leadership.
Contrary to the strong anti-war sentiments among many Japanese citizens, Abe’s ruling Liberal Party is currently re-writing the country’s pacifist constitution to allow for overseas military deployment as part of the US-led military alliance in Asia. This move ends seven decades of Japanese avowal to never use military force, except under conditions of self-defence.
Japan’s moves towards militarism under Abe have been crafted with close consultation from Washington.
Just as the Japanese leader was making his address on wartime transgressions, Japan’s military is for the first time since the end of the Pacific War currently engaged in naval exercises with American forces.
Given the continuing existence of rightwing Japanese elements who deny war crimes such as the Nanking Massacre – and Abe’s pandering to these elements – China has every right to be skeptical of vapid speeches about “remorse”.
But more than this, China has to judge words by actions. Japan’s embrace of American militarism in Asia-Pacific directed at China is perhaps the ultimate litmus test of Japanese sincerity about its past violations. Abe’s words of Japan never again using military force are contradicted by his very actions.
China, Japan and the other Asian nations must try to enter dialogue to resolve their long-running disputes, past and present. But there is very little chance for a successful dialogue whenever Japanese leaders and others are cravenly allowing their countries to be used by Washington in its geopolitical chess games.
Mindful of the wishes of many ordinary Japanese, South Korean and Filipino citizens, the question must be asked: what are so many American military personnel and bases doing in these supposedly sovereign countries?
The irony should be particularly striking for Japanese nationalists.
If they really believe in sovereign independence, then why is their country serving as a glorified American overseas military barracks?
War should never happen again, says Abe. But if we don’t understand the imperialist roots of war, then, tragically, we are doomed to see its repetition. Such is the situation again in Asia-Pacific where Japan under Abe is playing the American pawn against China.
By Finian Cunningham
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