Interview with China expert Professor Rana Mitter

For China and Japan, the battles they fought in the 1930s and 1940s continue to scar their relationship. On a diplomatic level, there has been no meeting between their leaders since President Xi Jinping exchanged a frosty handshake with Prime Minister Abe in late 2014.

President Xi has worked in recent years to enhance the image of the Chinese Communist party and its achievements in the wartime period, even though many historians believe it was the Chinese Nationalists, not the Communists, who did most of the fighting against the Japanese army. The struggle with Japan therefore continues to be used as a way of providing legitimacy for the current Chinese leadership.

Chinese commentators also often claim that Japan has not properly apologised for its invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and for the Sino-Japanese war, which took place between 1937 to 1945.

Professor Rana Mitter is an expert on the period and the way it influences current political thinking in China. He is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. Professor Mitter believes it is time for China to stop demanding more apologies, so that the relationship between China and Japan can move forward to the mutual benefit of both nations. He also wants Japan’s leadership to speak out against revisionist views of history.

I interviewed him London at the Sino-British Summit in London in February 2017. I started by asking him about the perception among some Chinese people that Japan still owes China an apology.

I spent he best part of ten years doing research for my book China’s War with Japan 1937-45 entitled “The Struggle for Survival”. I particularly looked at that war from the Chinese side. You cannot study the history of the period without realising that the present-day resonance of the war is still very much a current issue.

And one of the things that you hear repeatedly, often from very well informed people, is the idea that Japan has never fully apologised for its war crimes. You also hear that Japan’s text books are full of misleading accounts or they ignore issues such as Rape of Nanking in 1937. I point out that a succession of Japanese prime ministers has made very comprehensive expressions of remorse and sorrow and horror at the crimes which were committed by Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. Anyone who knows about what the Japanese did in China and Korea and other parts of East Asia will know that these included appalling acts of brutality, there is no question about that.

But we also know that there has been a series of Japanese leaders who have apologised publicly and profusely.

China is talking about taking up the role of global economic leadership. This was something President Xi alluded to in his speech at Davos in January. He suggested that this role suits China because America is taking a more inward- looking and protectionist position under Donald Trump. Where does that leave China’s relationship with Japan?

If China is about taking a leadership role, particularly within the Asian region, then I think it should recalibrate its relationship with Japan. China is seeking leadership so it is pushing hard on economic integration in the region. However, China is aware than no infrastructure can be developed in the region without Japan being included. So, if there is a pivot to Asia by China I think it’s going to have engage seriously with the other countries including Japan. That would be a serious change of direction.

In that scenario, China warms to Japan. But what would China have to do to create a warmer diplomatic relationship with Japan? It seems very cold now.

Yes, I think the relationship is cool, at least on the diplomatic level. There have been no direct talks between President Xi and Mr Abe since they met on the fringes of an ASEAN meeting at the end 2014. Also, there is continuing friction on both sides about the islands in the South China Sea. However, it is important to look at the whole picture. There is a very high level of mutual trade between China and Japan and many Japanese companies are investing in China, so from an economic point of view, China is very aware that it cannot afford to alienate Japan completely. Japan also aspires to increase its profile and leadership capacity in Asia. It cannot do that simply by presenting itself as the country which is in opposition to China. Japan needs to build a new relationship with China. There could be a great deal of mutual benefits for both sides, if they are willing to seize them.

What about Japan’s relationship with the United States? Does Mr Abe need to be careful in terms of the way he deals with Mr Trump? If he tells Mr Trump he wants a bilateral trade deal and that he wants to collaborate with the US on security and defence, what signal does that send to China?

China’s leaders have said more than once which is that the Pacific Ocean is wide enough for two big powers to co-exist there. China is prepared to share influence in the region with Japan. All the countries in the Asia Pacific region will need to work out what it means to have a balanced relationship with the US and with China but I think it is misleading to think of these as mutually incompatible goals. There are a lot of areas where Japan has common interests with China and with the US so there is a lot to be gained from economic co-operation. The fact is that Japan and China will always be next to each other geographically, so this provides economic opportunities.

Some people say that Mr Abe is an extreme nationalist. What do you make of that claim and how does it affect the Japanese-Chinese relationship?

I think one should not take too seriously accusations that Mr Abe is on the wilder fringes of nationalism. He is quite mainstream and he leads a mainstream party.

What I do regard as problematic is that there is a part of Japanese society which takes a very inward-looking and only partial view of Japan and the Second World War. I recently visited the Yasakuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the descriptions on the exhibits blamed the reasons for the outbreak of war almost entirely onto China and other Asian nations and said nothing about Japan’s fault. This kind of rhetoric makes it harder for Japan to put itself forward as a regional leader. I do not think anyone who looks at Japan seriously sees anything other than a liberal, pluralist, democratic state but it is also the case that there as aspects of Japan’s engagement with the past which still make other countries uneasy. So, it would be helpful if someone like Mr Abe, who has the credentials of a patriot, speaks up much more openly to say that any displays of extreme revisionism in the public sphere are unacceptable. It would do wonders for Japan’s image in the region.

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