Leave History to the Experts
Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)
The apology by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for Japan's wartime actions, followed by the meeting with President Hu Jintao, hopefully mark a turning point in relations between the region's two most important countries.
The immediate reaction of many Chinese was that the apology was not sincere, that it should be put in writing, that Japan should do this or that. But it would be churlish for the Chinese government to reject the apology and to keep pressing Japan for more acts of remorse. For the first time, Japan has delivered a solemn apology to the countries of Asia in an international setting. There is no reason to question Tokyo's sincerity.
While it is right for Japan to remember history, Beijing should also bear in mind that "history" consists of more than the 14 years between 1931 and 1945, when Japan invaded and occupied large parts of China. Sixty years have elapsed since the second world war's end, and much has happened during that period. For example, after the normalisation of relations in 1972, the two countries worked well together on many issues, including jointly opposing Soviet hegemonism.
Moreover, Japan has generously provided China with US$25 billion in economic aid over the past 25 years, which has been of great help in developing the economy. That, too, is part of history, and should be respected. Unfortunately, it is something that many Chinese are not even aware of.
As for textbooks, few countries are entirely free of manipulating them to enhance their own image. Of course, two wrongs do not make a right, but are Chinese books entirely honest about the Korean war, or what the Communist Party has done to its own people in the past 55 years?
The existence of anti-Japan sentiments in China is a fact. Beijing, however, should not manipulate these feelings in its dealings with Japan. While the demonstrations were spontaneous, it is nonetheless true that they were sanctioned by the government.
If freedom of speech and of assembly were honoured in China, and there were frequent demonstrations on issues such as unemployment, corruption, poor management of the mines, and so on, then no one would accuse Beijing of using public protests as a weapon against Japan. But when protests on all other issues are not allowed, then it is natural to think that the mainland government is using public opinion to pressure Japan.
The two countries should not let the history issue prevent the resolution of all other issues. China should resist the temptation of using history to strengthen its hand in its bargaining with Japan. And Japan should desist from taking action likely to provoke China.
Japan has proposed the setting up of a commission of experts from both sides to study historical issues. The proposal was made by Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura to his Chinese counterpart, Li Zhaoxing . Beijing should accept it. Japan and South Korea have already established a similar commission.
Letting specialists reach agreement on historical issues still leaves a plethora of problems for the two countries, including the serious dispute over natural resources in the East China Sea and the extremely sensitive Taiwan issue. These are so difficult that if they become entangled in the dispute over history, then their resolution becomes that much more difficult, if not impossible.
A prosperous, united and stable Asia can only emerge if China and Japan resolve their differences. And if they do not, then the entire region is in peril.
(Originally appeared in the April 26, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)