Over the course of the past year, China has been commemorating the centenary of their defeat in the Sino-Japanese War with great fanfare (in Korea, the anniversary attracted less attention). Leading military journals published historical and strategic studies of the war, newspapers ran commentaries and op-eds on lessons learned, netizens blogged and argued over the legacy of the ‘Jiawu’ year war on websites and in chat rooms. There was even a feature film, as you can see by watching the trailer in the related link.
All this attention to battles fought long ago was not sheer antiquarian curiosity. Beijing and Tokyo have been locked for the past years in acrimony and hostility over a small cluster of rocks claimed by both governments, known as Senkaku in Japanse and Diaoyu in Chinese (including the Republic of China on Taiwan, then you would say there are three claimants to the islands). Although the territorial dispute goes back decades, tensions escalated in 2010 when a Chinese trawler fishing in the area rammed a Japanese Coast Guard patrol vessel, which detained the Chinese crew. Then in 2013 China’s blood came to a boil after the Japanese government purchased three of the islands from their private owners. The national government claimed to be preempting an effort by the rightwing governor of Tokyo from purchasing them for the city. But from Beijing’s perspective, Japan had “nationalized” the issue and inappropriately altered the status quo in a diplomatically provocative way. I happened to be visiting Beijing on September 18, 2013, which also happens to be the anniversary of Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria. Protestors in Beijing were taking the streets, and in other ways as well one could see firsthand the intensity of anti-Japanese public opinion on the issue.
The tensions continue to simmer, and feed into the close attention paid to the lessons of 1894-95. As the world’s second and third largest economies, China and Japan have too much to lose from a war over a handful of rocks in the sea. A hundred years ago, far more territory was at stake– the Korean Peninsula– whereas today, both Koreas are too strong militarily to allow China and Japan to fight over Koreans as passive spectators to their peninsula’s fate. Then again, war often takes everyone by surprise, as it did many in the Jiawu year. The preservation of peace, to use the phrase introduced in week one, is arguably the most taxing and delicate enterprise in international politics. Nothing about the 21st century has changed that sad fact of history.
© John Delury