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Faded war wounds still raw in Asia

2013-01-18Asia Times

In analyzing how the legacy of World War II and the Cold War impacts on European and Asians countries today, it is only fair for this author, as an Italian, to start with Italy. The country was the third and weakest member of the Axis nations defeated in World War II, yet it emerged from the conflict still claiming it had won at least half of it.

In 1943, half of the country switched sides, allying with the Americans and organizing partisan guerrillas. The myth was that these forces contributed to the total victory against Hitler; the reality is that Italy felt - and still feels - weak on both sides of history. We were weak as allies of the Germans (we contributed to their defeat) and weak as allies of the Americans (we didn't contribute significantly to their victory).

Without a backbone, Italy still feels like a mushy entity willing to sell itself to the most threatening party. Italy has thus given up on foreign policy, deferring first to the Americans, then the Europeans, and eventually to both.

Germany is different. It emerged from the war thinking it had wronged the world and itself. Later, it stood by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, consistently refusing to embark on military ventures following the end of the Cold War. It was very cautious over the Iraq conflict in 2003, refused to go into Libya in 2011. It had to be forced to intervene in Europe over the euro crisis, perhaps scared that its past ambitions would lead it to again mull gobbling up the continent.

Japan seems to be a different story, but mainly because of its different regional context.

In Europe, the Cold War ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing collapse of the USSR. In Asia, communism has taken a different route.

In the 1970s, China allied with America against the Soviets, and a decade later it introduced market reforms, that is, it opened the floodgates to forbidden capitalism. This path was to be followed by Vietnam, which had been forsaken by the Soviets in the 1990s. The third pillar of communism in Asia, the one that kindled the Cold War in 1950, North Korea, went to the other extreme, sticking to its old socialist guns and isolating itself from everybody, both its old masters and allies (China and Russia) and its old enemies (Japan and the US).

With the reunification of the two Germanies in 1990, Cold War legacies were erased in Europe, but in Asia they still exist. Korea is still divided, and more importantly, capitalist Taiwan has not taken over "red" China and is unlikely to do so - although the capitalist mentality has established a firm foothold in Beijing.

With time, in Asia geopolitical and historical concerns have become more important than ideological divides or ties. Vietnam, which fought a decade-long war against America, recently decided to embrace the US, its former enemy, for fear of an even older enemy, China, which is still its ideological brother. Meanwhile, capitalist South Korea, a bulwark of anti-communism that was saved by Washington from a North Korean takeover in the 1950s, balks at the idea of joining hands with capitalist Japan, its hated ex-colonial master, against "communist" China.

In Asia, the Cold War's legacy slides into the ancient, unresolved history of the region. Whereas in Europe, the rivalry between Germany, France, and the UK, which created three centuries of wars, has disappeared, in Asia the World War II legacies are still visible on the national maps.

Japan, defeated in World War II, still holds areas like the Takeshima (known in Korea as the Dokdo) Islands - and the Senkaku (known in China as the Diaoyu) Islands, which are also claimed by the winning powers, Korea and China. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute is a legacy of this history, as the US assigned them to Japan after World War II.

Yes, both countries still face unresolved Cold War issues, so their entitlements can be regarded as weaker. But Japan also has unresolved disputes with Russia, which declared war rights at the end of World War II and occupied some northern islands that are still claimed by Tokyo, including the Kuril Islands. Moscow was wrong, Tokyo felt, to attack when the country was already down on its knees, and Washington knows that in a way Japan might also have contributed to the Allies' World War II victory.

If in 1941 Tokyo had attacked the USSR from the east while Berlin had attacked it from the west, Moscow might have fallen, and the war could have taken an entirely different course.

Japan feels it was squarely defeated by America once in 1945 and again in the late 1980s, that time in economic competition. But Japan also feels it won militarily and economically over the other Asian states in 1945 and even later, as its economy boomed until the 1980s.

Even after that, Tokyo carried on helping many countries in the region economically. Washington, for its own reasons, forced Japan to yield to other Asian states at certain times. But without America's intervention in World War II, Japan might be now occupying all of China, and Japan could possibly, like the Manchu three-and-half centuries earlier, be about to Sinicize itself, conquered by the pervasive and invasive Chinese traditional culture.

Japanese might now be a smaller language, and Chinese might possibly not have gone through the massive process of simplification and Westernization that occurred after the communist takeover.

This didn't happen, but something else occurred. World War II latecomers the Soviets not only occupied a few islands in northern Japan, but more importantly, descended into Japanese-occupied Manchuria, where formerly weak, starving Chinese communists were regrouping. Here, the Soviets armed and supported the Chinese communists in going on to defeat the Chinese nationalists, sustained by the Americans, who had won the war in Asia but stayed aloof in its Chinese civil aftermath.

Without the Soviet support for the Chinese communists and the US aloofness in Chinese affairs, Mao Zedong might have never won the civil war and might have remained a tiny footnote in Chinese history.

On the western front, the USSR did defeat the Germans and liberate Eastern Europe from Nazi's domination. Moscow's contribution in Asia was never that clear or that great.

These are all flights of imagination to be sure, but they set the real stage for the present dramas over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and influence in South China Sea. In reality, the Cold War has not ended in the region, and the outcome of World War II was never clearly set and defined.

In all of this, many things are open to debate and interpretation, but few points are clear:
●The Americans are the only clear winners of World War II in the region.
●Japan was defeated only by Americans; nobody else can claim a clear victory.
●America, for its own strategic reasons (the oncoming Cold War), did not "de-Japanize" Japan as it "de-Germanized" Germany after the war.
●The Chinese and others contributed by stopping troops - but to some extent so did Japan by not attacking Moscow.
●China was helped by America twice, against Japan during World War II and against Russia in the 1970s. Without China, America would have had a harder time; but without America, China would have been brought to its knees twice.
●Japan helped Asia and China after World War II, and China's growth has helped Asian development.

Yet there are other elements complicating the picture. Unlike in Europe, where America has not been defeated, Washington has been scarred in Asia. The US did not completely defeat the Chinese in Korea in the 1950s, and it lost the Vietnam War. In the latter, a political adjustment with the Chinese evened out the end result.

These facts provide context for another question. China, among others, does not openly recognize some of the above facts, and its growth is scaring everybody else as it occurs on a mountain of unresolved regional issues, wounds, and scars. China's present and future peaceful development requires acknowledging these facts in order to clear the air in the face of many possible misunderstandings concerning China's growing ambitions and chest-thumping at home and abroad.

These mutual clarifications will be not sufficient to solve the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands issue, but could create a better climate to face the issues with cooler heads.

Some in China think the US is pulling the strings in a complicated plot to thwart Beijing's growth - and some in America and in the region may agree with that. But some people in China may support this American plan, as they see in it an opportunity to defeat the present leadership and reopen the opportunities for the faction that had supported neo-Maoist Bo Xilai, toppled last year following a huge scandal in Chongqing.

For all of them, reading the past is just an excuse to execute plans in the future. Yet, even if it is, excuses in politics and in everyday life are very important to move the undecided mind. We shall then see if in and out of China people will choose to set the historical record on a straighter course or brush over the past and concentrate on the current pushing and shoving.

For sure, as animal behavior constantly proves, pushing is easier than thinking, and war planners worldwide prepare for extreme contingencies, not normal occurrences. These few elements should lead us to believe that only the worst will happen around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

However, the urge for survival and evolution is also very strong, and in this case it is about the mutual benefits of greater integration of China into the world, something that Beijing has seen very clearly in recent decades.

Then there are also reasons to believe that China, the greatest beneficiary of its own peaceful evolution, will choose to stray from the warpath, ignore provocations, and acknowledge a history that opens a brighter future for it and all its neighbors in the Pacific rim. (2013-01-18 Asia Times)


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