Chapter 73 – Foreign Policy Problems – China


Problems of War Guilt, and Territorial Claims

War Guilt

1. Atrocities
2. War Responsibility
3. Blaming the Guilty

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 to the heart. 

1. Atrocities

Most knew about Japan’s war-time atrocities. But there was a toxic aversion to the details, like the monstrous plague germ infections and vivisection activities of Unit 731 in Manchuria. 

Nor did they want to hear about the way many of these Unit 731 monsters ended up guilt free. Even fewer wanted to hear how the Unit 731 bosses ended up running pharmaceutical companies in Japan after the war using the knowledge gained from a multitude of vivisections and freezings of live Chinese prisoners – ‘logs’ they called them.

They had given the same knowledge to the US Occupation in exchange for prosecution freedom. 

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

The Nanking massacre was a particularly sensitive topic, with the extreme rightwing in total denial despite photos and witness records. Fakes and deliberate distortions they would insist. 

Even moderates, like the Gaimusho, objected to way China insisted on building a memorial atrocity museum in Nanjing. Harmful to Japan-China friendship, they said. 

2. War Responsibility

But before condemning Japan’s seemingly ingrained reluctance to admit war guilt one had to tackle another and equally controversial question: This was the fact that many Japanese believed Japan was not responsible for the war. 

And if they were not responsible for the war then to what extent could one say they were responsible for the atrocities that followed?


In the West many assume that Japan went to war with China rather in the manner Nazi Germany  – with deliberate planned intention.  

The reality was more complex. To some extent Japan stumbled into war.  And to some extent it can say it was following the example of others.

For example, Japan’s cruel 1931 colonisation of Manchuria (which many see as the beginning of Japan’s wartime aggression) followed the even crueller 1898 US colonisation of the Philippines. 

The League of Nations censured Japan over Manchuria in 1933 but not the US over the Philippines. So other nations could have colonies but not Japan? 

Fortunately for the Chinese people, temporarily at least, Japan’s powerful Kwantung Army occupying Manchuria and some north Chinese provinces had its aggressive eyes facing north and west rather than south into China.

They realised, correctly, that China was just too big and complicated for Japan to conquer.

For them the first target for attack would have been Siberia, and Moscow later perhaps during its life-and -death struggle with Nazi Germany.

But some July 1937 minor clashes between Chinese and Japanese soldiers in the Marco Polo bridge area to the south of Beijing (or Beiping as it was then called) rapidly escalated into hostilities along the entire front between Chinese and Japanese troops. 

This led Tokyo urgently to send more troops to this front,  and to bomb Shanghai, which led to the further escalation of hostilities towards central China.    

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). 

Instead it was offering China an alternative government under its puppet Wang Ching-wei.

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

And if Japan subsequently was also moving into Indochina and the rest of Southeast Asia, here too Japan could claim to be resisting the unjust 1940 sanctions being imposed by the US on supplies to Japan of oil, steel and other war materials and the 1941 freezing of Japanese assets in the US.

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

(Bob was Robert Menzies, Attorney General and later prime minister of Australia,1939-41, who in 1938 had clashed with the leftwing trade unions trying to create a ban on the export of steel making materials to Japan well before the US did so.)

Today, imposition of trade sanctions seems to have become something normal, even when only minor antagonisms are involved. 

But in those days trade sanctions were never intended as a form of gentle persuasion between nations.To quote US president Woodrow Wilson in 1919 they were “something more tremendous than war.”

(To quote him more fully: The threat of sanctions was“an absolute isolation . . . that brings a nation to its senses just as suffocation removes from the individual all inclinations to fight . . . Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force. It is a terrible remedy. It does not cost a life outside of the nation boycotted, but it brings a pressure upon that nation which, in my judgment, no modern nation could resist.” )

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

It would also say it was liberating Asia from Western colonial domination.

For many Japanese the scenario was of a brave little Japan being forced into a war with an all-powerful USA – a war which it did not want and which it could not win. And which, but for some mistakes, it could by chance have won.

But after a brave struggle it was finally defeated, unfairly.

Or as the MOFA desk officer for Australia, Taniguchi (and a good friend) reminded me sagely, it was Australia that had declared war on Japan on December 8, 1941, and not vice versa. (He was technically correct. Few seem to have noticed but the text of Japan’s December 8, 1941, declaration of war only specifies war with the US and England-Eikoku.) 

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, leading to war.

In short as an Australian on Japan’s lecture circuit I needed constantly to take account of Japanese sensitivities.

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

3. Blaming the Guilty

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

To admit that someone acting on behalf of Japan has behaved badly, particularly if he can claim he was acting in accord with the will of the emperor, is to admit that the familial nation-group has behaved badly.  

Even in our own societies we tend to be reluctant to  admit war crimes.  It is only when the atrocities are undeniable and clearly intentional that people can be made to admit the nation was at fault.

It was not until the seventies that a book about Unit 731 atrocities finally emerged in Japan. Up till then they had been largely unknown, with Chinese accounts dismissed as propaganda.

Many were shocked by the revelations. 

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 and tested on their ‘logs’.

But even here the authorities seem to have been slow in finding and destroying germ stocks hidden at war end. As for naming and blaming the perpetrators, leave that to others.

The comparison is often made with Germany which has admitted national responsibility for wartime atrocities.

True, Germany may not have to cope to the same extent with Japan’s nation-group complexes.

But for any self-respecting nation that is no excuse.


4. Senkaku Islands
5. South China Sea
6. Taiwan
7. Okinawa
8. Okinotori-shima 
9. With Virtue repay Harm
10.Cultural Differences

Handling territorial disputes in speeches was another problem.

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

4. Senkaku Islands

The main dispute was over the Senkaku islands. By any standard they belonged to Taiwan rather than Japan.

The fact a Japanese entrepreneur had been able to base himself there during China’s 19th century 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:


Japan did not even have a name for the islands.  Japan 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. 

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

The Chinese name – Diaoyu-tai, or Fishing Platform – went back over 800 years. It was the name of an emperor’s marble fishing pond, and the building still exists in Beijing. 

The name alone proved the point, namely that the island 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.


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

They are Taiwan’s islands. 

Reason demands they should have been included with Taiwan when postwar Japan renounced ownership of Taiwan, just as it was taken for granted that all the other islands surrounding Taiwan (there are many) should go to whomsoever was to take possession of Taiwan.

Are we to assume anyone would have been free to go and pick up one or two of these islands just because they were not all listed by name in Japan’s surrender document? 

They are completely separated from Japan by the deep Okinawa Trough. 


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 the successor to the  entrepreneur occupying the Sentakus had ‘sold’ the islands to Japan, we have been treated to a full-throated Japanese claim for ownership.

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

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

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

It refused to recognise Japan’s sovereignty.

And yet it is on this basis of this weak reed that Japan claims full ownership of the islands (and the enormous maritime EEZ with oil drilling rights attached), while Beijing is condemned as expansionist for supporting Taiwan’s claim to the 7 Senkakus.


This, incidentally, is the same Beijing whose willingness to restrain itself from claims to territories claimed by Taiwan, either now or in the recent past, is remarkable. 

These Taiwan-claimed territories which China neglects to claim include Mongolia – area 1.574 million sq.kms – with valuable resources adjacent to China, and large areas of Myanmar and north India also adjacent to China.

5. South China Sea

Beijing’s claims to the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea were also said to be expansionist. 

But Taiwan was making the same claims, and in one case (Taiping Island, by far the largest island in the Spratly’s) it had ignored claims from the Philippines to  occupy an island big enough to maintain a population of 300.

(Incidentally the UN-appointed South China Sea arbitration tribunal, 2013-16, got itself so confused over this issue as to lose all claim to authority.)

(For some strange reason it concluded that the 51 hectare island with its own shipping port and airport was only a ‘rock’.)

(The fact the tribunal had only one Asian name among its lists of members and counsel could help explain the ignorance.)   

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, which then were either too poor or under colonial domination to make claims. 

The Chinese assumed it was theirs in which to fish – a Chinese lake.

They did not bother with the Western practice of placing markers and monuments to prove ownership. For centuries the mere fact of having their boats fish regularly in an area where others rarely came gave them a claim to ownership.   

China saw its history with the islands as dating back to the Ming Dynasty. 

It was not until the problem of over-fishing arose, and  offshore mining rights began to be an issue, that areas of ocean along littoral states or around islands began to be demarcated for exclusive use.

But for the Chinese what remained relevant was who traditionally had been fishing in the area. And that, for the most part, had been China.

This fishing activity in turn was the basis of the nine-dash line, made first by Taiwan (and copied in a less expansionist form by Beijing), showing much of the South China Sea as Chinese.

With this as a basis Taiwan, following the Western custom, began to make formal claims to sovereign ownership of islands in the Chinese sea.

Beijing avoids competing with Taiwan, and to some extent with others, in the claiming of South China Sea islands as national territory. 

It does noting to challenge Taiwan’s claim to Taiping island, for example. Its argument is that since Taiwan is part of China then Taiping is already part of China.

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


Beijing has to tolerate unfriendly US warships that frequently prowl the area and submarines that chart the sea-bed.

It is more than entitled to guarantee its security by all means available.

The US sends armies across the globe to defend what it claims are threats to its security. 

Beijing just makes protests, and dredges sand.

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

6. Taiwan

Beijing claims Taiwan for the same civil war reasons as Taiwan used to claim China. All agreed that it was part of China.

The US in 1949 accepted China’s claim to Taiwan and had completely disowned Chiang Kai-shek’s forces seeking refuge there. They were seen as corrupt and useless.

Meanwhile Beijing was assembling troops in south China in preparation for a final attack on Chiang Kai-shek’s remnant forces in Taiwan. 

But the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War led the US to about-turn its position over China’s claim to Taiwan. Any move by Beijing in the Taiwan Straits would be seen as hostile, it said.

 And with Beijing having to move its troops to north China to defend against a Korean War US incursion there could be no immediate move against Taiwan anyway.

But for that Korean War diversion (in no way Beijing’s fault) Taiwan would have been returned to China in 1950-51.

It was not until after the Korean War, in September, 1954, that Beijing finally could focus on Taiwan. Its first move was against the Taiwan-held Ta Chen islands off the coast of China and 200 miles north of Taiwan, then being used by Chiang’s military for sabotage attacks into Mainland China. 

When China in January the next year seized some neighbouring islands, the Ellsberg papers say that the US threatened nuclear retaliation.

China had no choice but to cease the attacks.

When Taiwan resumed its sabotage attacks into China from the Offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, further south near Xiamen in Fujian province, China in 1958 began attacking those islands. It assumed that this time it had Soviet nuclear backing.

But Khrushchev withdrew that backing and once again China had no choice but to desist when the US had again threatened nuclear attack.

From the Ellsberg papers we learn that attack would have involved use of tactical nuclear weapons against a number of airports in south China

It was not until the late sixties that China developed its own nuclear deterrent. But by then Beijing had decided for One China reasons to accept Taiwan’s occupation of the Offshore islands i.e. Taiwan is China so to attack Taiwan-held islands is to attack China. There have been no moves against the islands since, despite occasional provocations.

As I have argued elsewhere, the trauma in Sino-Soviet relations brought on by the US 1958 threats of nuclear retaliation over Quemoy and Matsu was to continue for more than a decade and badly distort Sino-Soviet relationships.

Only in 1971 were US relations with China restored.  

I have reason to believe that secret efforts made by Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek and president of Taiwan, 1978-88, to open contacts with Beijing were also terminated by US threats.

I first visited Taiwan in the early sixties and was astounded by the poverty and lack of progress under the Chiang Kai-shek regime, despite US aid.

The continuing repression of anyone seen as unfavourable to the regime was also ugly. It had earlier resulted in the killing of some 30,000 Taiwanese seen as pro-Japan (the former coloniser which had done much to promote Taiwan agriculture).

Now it was killing and imprisoning anyone seen with pro-Beijing sympathies. (The father of Chien-ming, my Taiwan-Chinese friend in Canberra, bravely acted as lawyer for some of those accused.) 

The regime knew how to kill. But little more.*

But in recent visits to Taiwan I have been impressed by the economic progress, the freedoms and the progress (until recently) in relations with Mainland China. 

The fact that 2 million Taiwanese work in China (mainly in chip-making factories) has been a factor working for better relations. Until recently Taiwan was a popular destination for Mainland Chinese tourists. 

7. Okinawa

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, or water, 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 inhabited 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 much closer connection to those islands than can Japan. 

But it never got round to placing markers, removing kings or queens (as Japan did in Korea), or stationing  soldiers.

So China was left to ‘cry in its sleep’ (as they say in Japanese) when Japan took over by force in 1879, also during China’s period of weakness.

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. 

Okinawa has the double burden of having been chosen by the USas the 1945 entry point for its attack on Japan.

In the process Okinawa lost a large percentage of its population, and the right to decide it own postwar future.

It has become large US base with insulting signs reminding the locals they have no right of entry. LDP-US corruption prevents the local population from regaining control of their own land.

 8. Okinotori-shima

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. 

Until the seventies no LDP politician antagonistic to China could hope to gain leadership.

But that situation gradually disappeared as Japanese claims to territory began to clash with Chinese claims.

Japanese greed for territory is abnormal.

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 that they have an EEZ (exclusive economic zone) 154,500 square miles (400,000 square km.), 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 rocks, only the illegal claims to the EEZ, which  allows Japan to claim control of the seas almost as far as New Guniea (RSL readers and China threat hawks please note). 

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

Tokyo shrugs off the criticisms.

9. With Virtue repay Harm  

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

But Japan still complains about loss of wartime territory, even when 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 for 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  house in Isumi town: With virtue repay harm.

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

But Japan’s nationalists are reluctant to show much virtue to repay the harm they caused. 

True, Japan paid a claimed 45 billion dollars in aid after 1979 for China’s reconstruction.

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

Instead of repaying with virtue for the harm they caused China, they repay with continued antagonism.

Within a few years from prison release and with CIA help, they had created conservative political groups able to take 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 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.  

One with wide readership says the Chinese are ‘dirty’ and ‘untrustworthy’.

10. Cultural 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 collectivist values are much stronger. 

Those collectivist values inherited from the past may have been good for creating armies and economic development, but not for foreign policy.

Fortunately in the economic development sphere the intellectualism and love of study promoted by Confucian values could eventually prevail over, or at least match, the collectivism promoted by ex-feudal values.

It  is no accident that in a range of hi-tech industries China is shooting ahead of Japan. 

*The Gorton Visit

My first involvement with Taiwan Strait problems came 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/looted from the mainland in the last days of the Nationalist regime and brought to Taiwan as proof of Nationalist as opposed to Communist legitimacy.

From there we went together with Chiang Kai-shek to sit on top of a 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 inhabited 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.