China's fighting words are full of fury

China's reaction to Tony Abbott's comments on Japanese WWII soldiers makes its political ideology clearer than ever. But if Australia is to shoehorn itself into others' history wars, it should get its own regional story right.

If much of China and Japan’s shared history starts as tragedy, in their current history wars it repeats as farce.

The most recent spat, a bitter territorial dispute over a group of tiny East China Sea islets, reached a particularly bizarre nadir earlier this year when both country’s diplomats deployed Harry Potter references in their rhetorical salvos.

In op-eds and media appearances, the diplomats called on the British public to decide which country represented the Dark Lord Voldemort – was it Japan or was it China?

Now Australia is getting a taste of this absurdity thanks to Tony Abbott’s foray into the history wars last week when he praised Japan's World War II military prowess in his welcome to Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

In a fiery op-ed in the state-owned Global Times today, retired senior Chinese military commander Wang Hongguang likened Australia to a frightened bandicoot.

“A bandicoot that’s so alert that, whenever it sees an animal pass by it – whether it’s dangerous or not – will start digging holes and construct a labyrinth of tunnels until it dies in fright” he said.

Among the sound and fury of Wang Hongguang’s article was a hint of how seriously the senior leadership takes the issue. Xi Jinping warned Abbott’s political father, John Howard, about the dangers of cosying up to Japan, Wang said in Beijing last week.

An editorial in the same fiercely nationalist newspaper opted for an even more contemptuous tone.

Australia “used to be a place roamed by rascals and outlaws," it thundered. Now it’s “a good place for business, travel and higher education. That's about it."

It ends on a goading note. Sure, Julie Bishop says she will stand up to China, “but what resources does she have to do so with?” it asks.

“The next day, Australian leaders will smile at China again, just as they do now to Japan.”

If there was ever any doubt as to China’s reaction to Abbott’s comments, we now know in no uncertain terms. It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.

There’s no doubt that the Chinese government is filling the ideological vacuum left in communism’s wake with nationalism and  is cynically using the history card in its diplomatic disputes.

But that doesn’t mean the topic is any less sensitive to the average Chinese person. And many older Australians, in particular, were also taken aback by the Prime Minister’s comments.

"We admired the skill and the sense of honour that they brought to their task although we disagreed with what they did,” the PM said of the Japanese submariners who attempted to attack Sydney harbour.

 “Perhaps we grasped, even then, that with a change of heart the fiercest of opponents could be the best of friends,” he added.

In fact, the history is not as clear-cut as the Prime Minister makes out.

The decision to give those Japanese soldiers full military honours at the time of their death was at least partly made in hope that a show of magnanimity to the Japanese would convince them to treat Australian soldiers in POW camps more humanely.

According to a history of the events in David Jenkins’s Battle surface!, Japanese authorities noted the funeral service but it didn’t lead to any improvement in the conditions of the Australian soldiers.

Over 22,000 Australians became prisoners of war of the Japanese in south-east Asia during World War Two. In a war where atrocities were common, the Japanese treatment of its prisoners of war was particularly abominable.

If Australia is going to shoehorn itself into China and Japan’s history wars, we might as well get ours right first.

Ultimately, the government is gambling that a little bluster from the Chinese on security issues doesn’t mean the trade relationship will suffer.

The wise heads of Australia’s foreign policy community argue that the media blow-back is to be expected and that China is able to compartmentalise its approach to Australia.

It seems the Abbott government is willing to test the limits of that theory.

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