Australia risks becoming collateral damage in the Asian history wars

Tony Abbott has inadvertently mired himself in one of the most hotly contested wars in Asia -- the battle over the memories of Japan's imperial and colonial legacy.

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touched down in Canberra last Monday for a historic visit to Australia, a sombre-looking Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over a ceremony in Beijing commemorating the 77th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge incident, when the imperial Japanese Army officially invaded China.

Following the ceremony, Chinese media have been running daily stories from the national archives about Japanese atrocities against Chinese civilian and military personnel, including rape, murder, pillaging, and gruesome medical experiments performed on live human beings.

The timing of the Chinese media blitzkrieg is deliberate and is aimed squarely at Abe, who is leading the charge to re-interpret Japan’s pacifist constitution, which would allow Japan’s self-defence force to play a more active role abroad. 

Though China was not particularly thrilled at the prospect of Australia becoming more closely aligned with Japan, its response was largely muted and measured. However, the Chinese restraint was unshackled when Tony Abbott said he admired the skills and honour of Japanese soldiers during World War Two.

His comment was in reference to the military honour accorded to Japanese submariners who were killed during their daring raids against Sydney Harbour. China’s official news agency Xinhua fired the first salvo; its Canberra bureau chief penned a highly critical op-ed column.

“By making such a comment, Abbott showed how insensible [sic] he is towards people in China and other countries who had suffered greatly as a result of the 'advanced' war skills of Japanese troops and their sense of honour during their aggression,” says the column.

Initially, it was thought as an angry reaction from an aggrieved journalist. But Abbott’s comment caused quite a ripple in China. The state broadcaster CCTV went on to interview Australian comfort woman, a euphemism for a forced military sexual slave, Jean Ruffe, in an attempt to shame Abbott about his comments.

The Prime Minister has inspired many editorials in Chinese newspapers, including an outright denunciation from the nationalist tabloid, the Global Times to a more measured response from Beijing Commercial Times that describes Abbott as still in opposition mode (China's fighting words are full of fury 14 July 2013).

Abbott has inadvertently mired himself in one of the most hotly contested wars in Asia -- the battle over the memories of Japan’s imperial and colonial legacy in the region, especially in China and Korea.

He has been poorly advised on his comments about the “skills” and “honour” of Japanese soldiers, which have also incited criticism from Australian war veterans. The history war in East Asia between Japan, China and Korea is more than a verbal spat. It is a potent diplomatic dagger.

When Xi Jinping was in Korea in early July, he chose to highlight the Sino-Korean alliance against the Japanese more than four hundred years ago as one of the binding ties that brought two countries together. His effort went down well at Seoul National University, an elite training ground for future Korean leaders.

“Even young Koreans with the fuzziest sense of history know that the Ming saved Korea from state collapse,” says the New York Times. “Mr Xi is planting the seeds of pro-Chinese sentiment among the next generation of South Korean leaders.”

Early this year, Beijing also dedicated a memorial hall to a Korean nationalist An Jung-geun, who assassinated Japanese prime minister Ito Hirobumi at Harbin Railway Station in China in 1909. The Chinese move delighted Koreans and made the Japanese furious.  

Japan’s war-time legacy is still an open and festering wound in China and Korea. Even symbolic actions such as visiting a controversial shrine and questioning historical memories could send diplomatic relationships into a deep freeze.

At a time when Australia needs to juggle a delicate balance between an increasingly confrontational China, the US and Japan, the Prime Minster and other senior ministers need to be mindful of the on-going history war in the region. The country should not become collateral damage in a deeply emotional and dangerous war over memories.