When Chinese President Xi Jinping met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, he stated that “Japan must look at history squarely and more towards the future.” Xi’s carefully selected words were taken from a text agreed upon in advance by the two countries’ foreign ministries. Behind the words lurk an agreement Xi has made with Russian President Vladimir Putin to jointly use the 70th anniversary in 2015 to “safeguard the outcome of the victory of World War II and post-WWII order.” The joint celebration plan aims to warn Japan against historical revision and could create difficulties for the US-Japan alliance.
Putin and Xi had already made known at their Shanghai meeting in May that Russia and China would organize joint events in a 2015 commemoration of the victory over “German fascism and Japanese militarism” with a view to “counteracting the efforts at falsifying the history and undermining the post-war world.” Implicitly this was meant as an attack on Abe’s December 2013 visit to the highly controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Putin spoke in Shanghai about the “great heroism of our peoples in World War II, “which brings Russia and China even closer.”
At a time when the West and Japan apply sanctions against Russia, Putin has moved ever closer to China. In addition to signing gas deals and increasing Russia’s imports of foodstuffs, he sees China as a partner in correctly remembering history.The prospects of joint commemoration in Europe are now limited. Not much can be organized with Ukraine, on whose territory some of the worst battles were fought, and Russia could struggle organizing celebrations with the USSR’s Western allies, including the United Kingdom, France or Poland. These days, moreover, commemorative events of both WWI and WWII in Europe are generally organized with German participation. The idea is to heal wounds rather than open them. Hence Putin turns to China for a united celebratory front against Japan, although this will not help resolve the dispute over the Kurile Islands, which were seized by the USSR in August 1945 and remain under Russian occupation.
The joint celebration also fits well into Xi’s agenda. He advocates a “new type of major power relations” between China and the United States, and Russia may help realize that aim. Putin brazenly defies the United States in global politics, so Xi can aspire to a role as a moderate broker. China could thus gain respect as an equal player with the United States on the global scene. Xi’s hope, no doubt, is that Washington will maintain its leverage in Tokyo. Japan’s leaders must not visit Yasukuni, must apologize again for their predecessors’ crimes, should admit that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are under dispute, and must not revise their peace constitution. Xi’s cool reception of Abe in Beijing at the APEC summit was meant to further these aims.
China opposes any change in Japan’s peace constitution and, above all, opposes Japan being assigned a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. This is probably what Putin and Xi meant when warning against “undermining the post-war world order.”
Putin and Xi strongly warn against historical revisionism. On Sept. 3, on the occasion of the 69th anniversary, Xinhuanet reported that Xi stated emphatically: “China will allow neither denial nor distortion of this history, nor any return to militarism… Facts are facts. Truth is truth.”
However, when presenting the value of their wartime collaboration, China and Russia may have to rewrite history themselves. No revision is required to speak about the enormous Soviet contribution to defeating Nazi Germany, but it will be tempting to gloss over the fact that after a Soviet force had crushed the Japanese Kwantung army in the battle of Khalkin Gol, May through September 1939, a neutrality pact was negotiated and signed by the USSR and Japan on April 13, 1941, shortly before the German invasion of the USSR. Tokyo and Moscow maintained diplomatic relations until Stalin broke the pact on Aug. 8, 1945, in fulfillment of a secret pledge he had made in February to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Yalta, where China was not present.
The 2015 joint Sino-Russian celebration may provide an occasion for reviving the old debate about the respective impact of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria Aug. 8 and 9, in forcing the Japanese Emperor to announce his decision to surrender on Aug . 15. Much will be said about how decisively the Soviets drove the Japanese out of Manchuria.
The celebration will provide an opportunity for reminding the world of the Chinese people’s suffering from the Japanese invasion in 1937, when Chiang Kai-shek was forced to withdraw from his capital, Nanjing. When entering the city, the Japanese army undertook a horrendous massacre.
It will furthermore be emphasized how China maintained its war of resistance for eight long years. Less will be said about China’s inability to launch offensives. In the second half of 1944, when Japan’s navy was already losing in the Pacific, its army still mounted the successful Ichigo offensive, which drastically reduced the area controlled by Chiang Kai-shek. So while China surely tied up huge Japanese forces in a long and destructive war, it was the United States that ultimately defeated Japan.
Not much is likely to be said about the Chinese Red Army’s contributions or its rivalry with the Kuomintang. The Chinese Communist Party has replaced class-based ideology with a nationalist vision of China’s past and future, resembling that of the Kuomintang: A century of national humiliation made it necessary for China to rebuild itself as a great, respected power. This was Chiang’s “China Dream,” and now it is Xi’s. Although Xi did not accept meeting with Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou at the APEC summit, next year’s celebration could see some participation by the Taiwan-based Kuomintang.
US allies today include enemies during WWII — Japan, Germany, Italy — and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are hardly worth celebrating. Hence Putin and Xi may steal the show in August and September of 2015. Obama could thus choose to play Xi’s game, use leverage to keep Japan in place, recognize China’s suffering, seek Xi’s help in finding a solution with Russia on Ukraine.
China and Russia’s joint celebration effort is unlikely to make much impression on Europe or the US but could have a negative effect on their relations with Japan, in particular if other issues, such as territorial disputes, are once again accentuated. It remains to be seen if Xi and Abe’s decision this week to establish a hotline and other “crisis management mechanisms” will reduce tensions in the East China Sea.
The year 2015 could be decisive for both old and new types of relations among the major powers, and new types of joint celebration will not make relations easier.
Stein Tonnesson is a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Norway, and leader of the East Asian Peace program at Uppsala University, Sweden.