Chapter 73 – Foreign Policy Problems – China


1. War Responsibility
2. War Origins
3. Japanese Atrocities
4. Territorial Disputes
5. Senkaku Islands
6. South China Sea
7. Taiwan
8. Japan-Germany War Differences
9. Japan-China Differences

If Russia was a sensitive lecture topic, China was even more so. Even in talks to progressive Japanese one sensed an unwillingness to hear what the foreigner had to say -that the matter was too close and complex for discussion. 

China – A Sensitive Topic

Most knew about Japan’s guilt. But there was a toxic aversion to topics like the monstrous plague germ infections and vivisection activities of Unit 731 in Manchuria,  the Nanking massacre and so on. 

Nor did they want to hear about the way many of these Unit 731 monsters ended up running pharmaceutical companies in Japan after the war. 

Only the Soviets went to the trouble of putting on trial the sadists they captured, and recording their crime details.

1. War Responsibility

Here I am not just talking about the Japanese hard Right, equipped with their denials of even the most egregious wartime atrocities. Rather I am trying to understand the feelings of the average, reasonably well-informed Japanese audience.

Japan’s ingrained sense of group responsibility works well in making cars.  But fails badly in handling war time atrocities. 

To admit some in the nation-group have behaved badly, then that is to admit that the nation-group has behaved badly.  To search for the responsibility of the some is to search the responsibility of all. 

So some reluctance to accept national responsibility can be understood. 

It was not until the seventies that a book about Unit 731 atrocities finally emerged. Admittedly, the nation was shocked at the time. 

But not enough to want to track down the guilty to find out what they did, and why.

Since then more details have emerged, and thanks mainly to UN anti-germ warfare obligations we have heard how certain areas of China were targeted for the spread of bubonic plague germs developed by the Unit.

But even here the authorities seem to have been slow in finding and destroying germ stocks hidden at war end.

2. War Origins

Another problem in talking about the war is the assumption that Japan went to war with China rather in the manner Nazi Germany went to war with Soviet Russia  – with deliberate planned intention.  

But the reality is more complex. To some extent Japan stumbled into war.  Or it felt it had to match the aggressions of others. 

For example, Japan’s cruel colonisation of Manchuria followed the US cruel colonisation of the Philippines. 

The League of Nations rebuked Japan over Manchuria but not the US over the Philippines. So other nations could have colonies but not Japan?

What’s more it had to suffer severe trade frictions orchestrated by none other than the US.

As a result, by 1937 Japan was in full aggression mode against China when it invaded Shanghai and was moving troops up the Yangtse basin to overthrow the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek further inland, committing atrocities like the Rape of Nanking en route. 

But even then Japan’s militarists had a sliver of an excuse: Japan could say it was not trying to conquer China (an impossibility anyway). 

It was offering China an alternative (puppet) government under Wang Ching-wei. 

If the war was continuing that was Chiang Kai-shek’s fault for obstinately resisting the militarists ‘generous’ efforts to install the less corrupt Wang as China’s leader, they could (and would) say.

If Japan was also moving into Indochina and the rest of Southeast Asia, here too Japan could claim to be resisting the unjust sanctions being imposed by the US and some its allies on Japan’s supplies of oil, rubber and steel making materials crucial for its economy. 

A nation subject to such economic strangulation should be allowed to strike back in some way, they could say.

(One of my stronger childhood memories were the frequent graffiti – Pig Iron Bob – on the walls of Brisbane buildings.

(Bob was Robert Menzies, the conservative prime minister of Australia,1939-41, who had clashed with the leftwing trade unions trying to enforce a ban on the export of pig iron to Japan.)

As for other Japanese aggressions – the attack into China proper from the north – here too Japan had its excuses.

Its troops stationed in the provinces just to the south of Manchuria originally were not part of a plan to attack into China.

Japan’s Manchuria-based Kwantung army would have preferred to attack into the emptier spaces of Siberia.

But with the escalation of the Marco Polo Bridge incident of July 1937, Tokyo ended up being involved in a full-scale invasion of China and into Southeast Asia, reaching Singapore.

Naval defeats at Midway and Coral Sea, and US/Australian resistance to the takeover of Papua New Guinea (PNG) marked the limits of Japan’s advance, with US, Australian and other troops beginning an island-hopping attack northwards.

As some Japanese would see it, brave little Japan was forced into a war with an all-powerful USA, a war which it did not want. And which, but for some mistakes, it could have won, but was finally defeated, unfairly.

That, at least, is how Japan’s revanchist rightwing would argue.

Or as the MOFA desk officer for Australia, Taniguchi (and a good friend) reminded me sagely, it was Australia as a Commonwealth member that had declared war on Japan and not vice versa.

In Japan I also had several reminders of how Australia’s formal refusal to accept racial equality for Japan at the Versailles Conference in 1919 had inflamed much of Japan’s prewar anti-Western nationalism.

3. Japanese Atrocities

Even so, and speaking as an Australian, atrocities on the scale and cruelty seen in the war with Japan do tell us something about the Japanese character.

Racial arrogance must have underlain much of Japan’s wartime behaviour. 

The calculated killings in wartime Singapore of Chinese seen as educated or leftwing and therefore anti-Japan – the Sook Ching – with its 20,000 or more  victims will forever remain as a stain on the Japanese national character.

It was a major reason for the Japanese reluctance to invest too heavily in Singapore which I found in my 1967 researches. 

Resentments still lingered despite the Singapore government’s realisation that eventually it would need economic cooperation from Japan.

Defenders of Japanese behaviour often point to the humane way Japan treated prisoners from earlier clashes with Germany and Russia. 

And in speeches I would often compare the civilised Navy occupation in the Wewak area of Papua New Guinea with the brutal Army occupation in the Rabaul area.

The former had left a legacy of friendship with Japan; the latter produced a hatred that lasted for years. 

In the Wewak area the Japanese built the school which the previous Australian colonizers had neglected to provide.

On one of his many trips to Japan the postwar PNG leader, Michael Somare, told me how he owed his education to that school. 

Papua New Guinea leader, Michael Somare, with wife and rich Japanese benefactor

Japan’s cruelty elsewhere in PNG can be blamed partly on the fact it was occupied by the Army with its bushido beliefs and with its less educated, rural-origin  soldiers. 

The Australian effort to recruit natives into military resistance against Japanese invaders was also said to be a factor.

Japanese culture encourages good behaviour to foreigners in normal situations.

But under pressure the floodgates of dislike and distrust can open.

The PNG natives got caught up in that ugly Japanese soldier syndrome of suspecting and killing all seen as unfriendly and as possible spies. 

But audiences accepted there were things they as Japanese did not know and needed to learn. 

It was only when I mentioned the fakery involved in the North Korean abductee problem that I got into trouble. 

There clearly a racial factor was involved.

4. Territorial Disputes

Territorial disputes were another problem.

Audiences were interested in the details, but not necessarily the conclusions – that Japan was usually at fault.

5. Senkaku Islands

The main dispute was over the Senkaku islands, where I tried to suggest they belonged to Taiwan rather than Japan.

The fact a Japanese entrepreneur had been able to base himself there during China’s period of weakness, and that China after 1945 had not immediately made a grab to retain the islands, had little to do with real ownership.

Relevant factors were:

1. History 

Japan had no name for the islands.  They had taken the islands during China’s period of weakness and borrowed the English name, Pinnacle Islands, given by some English sailors in the 18th century. 

They had then  translated this name into Japanese, Senkaku Retto.

The Chinese name – Diaoyu-tai, or Fishing Platform, went back centuries. 

The name alone proved the point, that it had long been used by Chinese fishermen at a time when the only Japanese ships in the area were busy doing pirate raids on Chinese coastal towns.

2. Geogrsphy 

The islands belong to a chain of volcanic islands connected to, and running north-east, from Keeling, Taiwan.

They are completely separated from Japan by the Okinawa Trough. 

3.  Research 

The former Taiwan president, the scholarly Ma Ying-jeou, before becoming president wrote the definitive work on Senkaku history. 

His book makes it clear they had always belonged to Taiwan.

Yet on the flimsy excuse that an entrepreneur and his successor had ‘sold’ the islands to Japan we have been treated to full-throated Japanese claim for ownership.

When Japan recognised Beijing as China’s government in 1972 both sides agreed to tana-age (shelving) the dispute. 

But it was not long before Japan’s nationalists moved in with claims.

Even the US, which would have liked to include the islands when returning the Okinawan islands to Japan in 1971, felt it could go no further than say it saw Japan having ‘administrative rights.’  

It would not recognize Japan’s sovereignty.

And yet it is on this basis of this weak reed that Beijing, which has restrained itself from land expansions into neighbouring territories (including even into Taiwan-claimed Mongolia – area 1.574 million sq.kms. – with valuable resources, or large areas of Myanmar and north India over which the Nationalist Chinese regime in Taiwan also used to claim) is condemned as expansionist for claiming the 7 …

6. South China Sea

Beijng’s claim to some of the Spratley and Paracel islands in the South China Sea was also said to be expansionist. 

But Taiwan was making the same claims, and in one case (Taiping Island) had ignored claims from the Philippines to seize an island big enough to have an airport and a population of 300.

In the past, and as with the Senkakus, Chinese boats roamed the South China Sea in search of fish. 

They had little competition from neighbouring countries, then too backward or under colonial domination. 

The Chinese assumed it was theirs to exploit – a Chinese lake.

This in turn was the basis of the nine-dash line, made first by Taiwan and copied in modified form by Beijing, showing much of the South China Sea as Chinese.

At times – Taiping island, for example –  Beijing avoids competing with Taiwan and some others in claiming the South China Sea islands it wants. 

Instead it goes off and builds its own islands, with sand-dredgers.  

Its security claims to South China Sea islands are not without justification – US warships frequently prowl the area and submarines chart the sea-bed.

Taiwan suffers no security threat from the US. But its claims to various South China Sea islands are equal to if not greater than those of Beijing.

7. Taiwan 

Beijing claims Taiwan for the same civil war reasons as Taiwan used to claim China. And the US seemed to tolerate Beijing’s civil war right to make its claims. 

Beijing was preparing to make good that claim soon after the 1949 end of the civil war on the Mainland.

But the 1950-53 Korean War forced Beijing to move north the troops it was preparing in the south for the attack on the Nationalist government in Taiwan.

It was not until the mid and late 1950s that Beijing felt able to start moving against Taiwan-occupied islands close to the Chinese mainland, and which Taiwan, together with the US, had been using for spy and sabotage missions against China – the so-called Offshore Islands.

I have argued elsewhere that it was only the US use of the nuclear threat, twice, against non-nuclear China that stopped Beijing’s moves against those islands, and against Taiwan.

Use of that threat helped create and sustain the Sino-Soviet dispute lasting to the mid-seventies.

It also forced China to develop its own nuclear capability, in 1964.

The Gorton Visit

(I had an early involvement with Taiwan Strait problems, when the very pro-Taiwan Australian politician, John Gorton, then minister for education, visited Taiwan in 1961.

(I was told to go from Hong Kong to join him and his delegation in Taiwan.

(We received the usual tour of the Chinese national treasures taken from the mainland in the last days of the regime and brought to Taiwan as proof of Nationalist as opposed to Communist legitimacy.

(Together with Chiang Kai-shek we sat on cliff facing the Taiwan Straits as planes dropped soldiers burdened with large packs into the waters below.

(They then had to swim to the beach below us.

(Chiang turned to us with pride:  “This is how we will recover the mainland,” he said.)

Ultimately the Japan-China and other territorial disputes in the China seas and elsewhere spring from a large and perhaps unrealised cultural difference.

The Chinese have always assumed territorial ownership of a piece of land comes from the historical record of activities on the land.

You do not have to place signs and markers or publish maps declaring ownership. If the lands are habitated China prefers if and when (as in Vietnam) the natives accept your culture and control.

Even then they do not necessarily become part of China.

They become a satellite or dependency.

Into this situation come the Japanese with Western ideas of what constitutes ownership – planting markers and publishing maps.

And the use of force to maintain that clam, followed by occupation if necessary. 

The Japanese seizure of the Ryukyu islands which long had close relations with pre-revolution China was a good example.

Historically and culturally China could probably claim a closer connection than Japan. 

But it never got round to placing markers and sending in soldiers.

So China was left to ‘cry in its sleep’ (as they say in Japanese) when Japan took over by force in 1879.

But this should not mean the rest of us have to ignore the validity of the more pacifistic Chinese approach. That is, unless we prefer to go along with the more militaristic Japanese approach. 

When I first arrived in Japan  in the 1960’s there was some feeling of remorse for the wartime harm Japan had caused to China. 

But gradually dissipated as claims to ‘lost’  territories emerged.

Nor is it only with China that Japan has claims. It is in territorial dispute with every one of its major neighbours, even allies.

The most spectacular example is Japan’s claim to Okinotorishima – two tiny coral rocks the size of a bed, 1,700 kms. south of Tokyo. 

Japan claims they belong to Tokyo and they have an EEZ (exclusive economic zone) 154,500 square miles (400,000 Km2), larger than the area of Japan itself 

Tokyo actively monitors the area, punishing Filipino fishermen who stray into the zone.

China does not dispute Japan’s claim to ownership of the reefs, only the claims to EEZ. 

Under international law an EEZ should only apply to territories maintaining economic activities, not to rocks.

Tokyo shrugs off the criticisms.

8. Japan-Germany War Differences

Germany accepted uncomplainingly loss of substantial territory as the price for waging aggressive war against neighbours. 

Japan still complains about territory lost under international treaties. It refuses any concessions over disputed territory.

At war end China did not ask for reparations from Japan for the terrible damage its military had caused over more than ten years of war.

Its policy was summed up in Chiang’s words engraved on a granite slab standing in solitary neglect close to my Boso house: With virtue repay harm.

(The prewar Chinese embassy had a besso close by.)

But Japan’s nationalists are reluctant to show much virtue. 

True,  Japan has paid a claimed 3.6 trillion of aid over 40 years for China’s reconstruction.

But Japan’s nationalists, together with indicted war criminals released early from prison, were long ago plotting anti-China policies in the name of anti-communism.

Within a few years and with CIA help, they had created conservative political groups able to seize power from the anti-war groups, the Socialist Party in particular, that had emerged strongly in immediate postwar years. 

Relying on pumped up territorial claims they have been able to go further and convert most the nation to their anti-China views, and to build an army to match. 

Little wonder there is little liking for Japan in China.

But sure enough, every outburst of Chinese anger against Japan, mainly over rightist insults or Japanese territory grabs, is used by the hawks in Japan for further anti-China policies.

The publications by the ultra-Right still show racial contempt for the nation that gave Japan much of its culture.  

The Chinese are ‘dirty’ ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘badly-mannered,’ they say.

9. Japan-China Differences

Many Western scholars have liked to assume that shared history, culture and language, would bring Japan and China together. 

That maybe true for Korea, which shares China’s Confucian culture.

But Japan, clinging to a very different culture, is not China.

Contrary to much conventional wisdom Confucian principles do not influence Japan greatly.

 Japan’s post-feudal values outweigh any Chinese cultural inheritance.

That is good for economic development, but not for foreign policy.