Thursday, April 28, 2005

Bones of Contention

Even as Chinese blood boiled with nationalistic spirit over the last 3 weeks, various factions picked at old bones. Amidst the plethora of western views, this article hopes to offer a asian perspective of the issues.

Hungry vultures at the door

The issues China currently faces may be simplified to 3 areas of concern :
1) Economic
Here, the criticisms centre on the lack of liberalisation (currency and trade wise) and protection of intellectual property.

Frankly, the criticism is tiringly repetitive. Has anyone really considered just how free and fair free trade is ? Economists will tell you that free trade as practised by free nations across the world is rife with unfair , protectionist practices. Free and fair is as subjective as political correctness was a decade ago. As for intellectual property, the copyrights and patents act not merely as means of protection but also restriction. Whilst the rights of creators, inventors, patent holders etc are the theoretical targets for protection, the real world protection is often for the economic rights ( read profits) of the corporations who stand to lose chances of further enrichment. Meanwhile, the section of the population who may not be able to afford the prices demanded stand to lose the chance of improving or entertaining themselves- too bad. A last word on currency liberalisation, just as revaluation is a likely outcome, the chances of devaluation (dictated by market forces) are also multiplied, this time, the consequences of volatility will reverberate around the world. For those who survived the Asian currency crisis, that prospect is hardly cheering.

The passing of the anti-secession law has brought a barrage of criticism against China and Taiwan has even banned coverage of Taiwanese news developments by the China press elements in Taiwan.

The rest of the world has to learn to cut its Janus act, either they recognise the one-China policy or they don't. After all, the one-China policy means that Taiwan is an unalienable part of Chinese territory, as such, it is an internal issue for the Chinese. The issue of sovereignty has been one of great sensitivity for the Chinese particularly in view of the history of modern China and the world, particularly the West should respect the sovereignty of the Chinese nation .

3)Anti-Japanese sentiment
The violence of recent demonstrations in China has been widely reported and criticised. Yet, the very cause of this wave of anti-Japanese sentiment has been comparatively underreported.As mentioned in an earlier article, the persistence of Japan in disrespecting their asian victims of war means that wounds are left festering permanently. When freedom of speech seen to be so absent in China has finally been exercised on this issue, albeit on a wave of nationalism, it is ironically slammed (again) by critics To suppress or not to suppress, that is the question.

The crane that cannot fly

Japan is a classic example of a nation which has created too much history (in every sense of the word create), such that it has difficulty shrugging off the burden of the past. Pretending that the past wasn't as gory or ugly as it was doesn't help its case.

Without the burden of history, certain issues may not be deemed so sensitive that they are a veritable tinderbox. For example, the issue of resource or oil exploration. What may seem a simple issue of economic benefit becomes a matter of national security for the Japanese and Chinese.Why? It was precisely the quest for resources and Japanese expansionist ambitions that resulted in that concept of "co-prosperity sphere" the fiction that justified Japanese militarism in Asia in World War II.

History also colours the demand for apologies that came from both sides.Whilst Japan is miffed by the refusal to apologise for the demonstrations, it seems to forget the indignation of war victims who have been kept waiting for the last 60 years. It begs the question: is Japanese pride all that more valuable than those of its war victims?!

As long as Japan refuses to face up to its past, how can the ghosts of the past be laid to rest? Every degree of shift from a pacifist nation to one with a more overtly aggressive role (and attitude) stirs memories of its militarist past. Can you blame its neighbours - how does the world expect Asia to rehabilitate a criminal when it does not even admit its crime?What type of world leader can the world expect that doesn't even have the gumption to face up to its past misdeeds.There's more than a little irony that a nation so insecure with its past is seeking to be a permanent member of the UN security council. The question is, with all the cynicism that the world is accustomed to, is it ready to say that money will buy power and a clean slate on a global scale?

The presence of Japanese troops, be it peacekeeping or military purposes, on Asian soil will be unacceptable to most Asian nations, particularly China and Korea . Japanese revisionist attitudes to history and intractable attitude of recent years merely encourages suspicion. Though the Japanese probably wishes the country was situated elsewhere in the world but unfortunately, this is one origami crane that's going no where. Instead of engaging in mass amnesia, maybe it should exorcise the ghosts of the past by facing up to the past in this 60th anniversary of the end ofWWII.

And they preached from towers up high

To the Chinese, the west has mainly harped incessantly on 2 issues; human rights and Taiwan. After the scandals of Guantanamo Bay and Iraqi POWs, can the west really stand firm on high moral ground and flog a dead hobby horse? Maybe the USA, with its predilection for labels and definitions should define the phrase human rights instead of banding it around as some vague catch-all phrase.If certain humans enjoy more rights than others, then Orwellian irony has come full circle.

Discussion of human rights is often linked to the issue of religious freedom and Tibet pops up as a convenient aphorism for all that is wrong. A suggestion; the next time celebrities like Richard Gere wishes to relaunch their campaigns, they should consider if there is true religious freedom in the west. Ask the Muslims and Mormons if they are free to practise polygamy in the west? Even in democracies, religious freedom is often subjugated to social reality and politics. Seeking to rule politically via religion runs contrary to the very basis of secular government, the history of the state of Utah may well be an example

Since the USA serves as an example for many points in this article, let's see another. Suppose the state of California or maybe Hawaii wishes to secede from the union, would the federal government look on that kindly?Similarly, would any of the EU states look on kindly if for example the USA sold arms to Basque separatist elements? Just as the Basque freedom movement is regarded as a terrorist group in Europe and their demands for a free Basque nation as a matter of internal security for the nations invoved, so China regards Taiwan as a renegade state and those politicians who push for an independent state as rebels.

The logic behind the arms embargo policy is really mindboggling - how could the selling of arms to one faction (Taiwan) and not the other produce a level playing field or be seen to be maintaining peace? It's like a cop selling arms to one gang to fight a turf war against another. It's merely encouraging a civil war

Suspicious minds might suspect that behind all that talk about maintaining the status quo, the real intention is to create and maintain conflict in the region to create the need and justification for US forces to "police" the region. If the prospect of Taiwanese reunification with the Mainland stirs so much unease, what kind of reaction would there be if the Koreas decide to reunify? Could that be part of the motivation to push for the inclusion of Japan in the security council on a permanent basis? To nullify the possibility of peace rather than to promote it? The stuff of conspiracy theories? Well the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

Et tu, Brute

Another matter stranger than fiction is the fact that Western politicians seem to think that the Taiwanese politicians have any credibility at all when the words "loose cannons" are the words most often associated with them . The world of Taiwanese politics rivals the WWE and the cheesiest of soap operas, it's a world where even the VP suggests to the aboriginal citizens that they return to Central America? HUH?!

That might explain why the ruling political faction and independence supporters have suggested forming an alliance with the Japanese against China. This has merely brought back memories of Chiang Kai Shek's decision to fight the communists instead of the Japanese invaders who were slaughtering fellow Chinese. It has also proven that a reason for Chinese weakness in the last century was infighting . This not only shows that Taiwan can't "go it alone" but also the lack of reason where one is willing to cut off the nose to spite the face. The question is ; is Taiwan willing to sell out the Chinese people to gain independence ? If so, what does this say about the Taiwanese?

Rearview mirror of history

If progress is a car and history the rearview mirror, the future is a foggy road , so there is little more than speculation based on past behaviour that's available to those who wish to engage in some crystal ball activities. If Japan succeeds in its quest for a council seat, North Korea might well be the next Iraq and Taiwan a potential unofficial colony. Who the villain and who the hero should be left to history to decide. Unless you're Japanese, which case, you can always rewrite history

1st published 19th April 2005

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Lessons of history

The events of the past week may seem to the casual observer to have the effect of a broken gramophone, every time the Japanese deal with issues pertaining to its past and its neighbours, a furore ensues. Is it merely a matter of the neighbours being oversensitive or does this herald a new age of Japanese insensitivity?

Isolation ward

In certain ways, Japan has not liberated itself from its closed door mentality, a set of attitudes that has existed since the first contact with the west , surviving gunboat diplomacy, modernization and the post war era. Though the country stands at the cutting edge of technology and is one of the most important economies, culturally and socially, it resembles its geographical appearance an island in dange of being dwarfed by the surrounding land masses and oceans. External influences are assimilated at the most superficial of levels.Whilst some may say the youth scene and consumer market are signs of a new openness, the basic lifestyle , systems of belief are uniquely and purely Japanese .
It is unsurprising, therefore , that the Japanese government and many of its people prefer to subscribe to a view of history that is at best revisionist and at its worst a self-justifying load of propaganda.

A Tale of 2 Cities

When it comes to comparisons regarding attitudes to World War II , Japan is often contrasted to Germany. Rightly so, for where Germany has been the model of openness, Japan has been the model of denial. That has contributed in no small part to the bitterness and raw emotions which flare occasionally in Asia.

To the non-Asian observer, it may seem to be the case of a dog refusing to let go of an old bone. To the Asian , it is a duty to remember this period of history with the accuracy and respect that it deserves, particularly when there are efforts to "innovate" historical facts. The indignation of Asian victims of the Japanese military machine in WWII is only strengthened when it faces the double standards that the rest of the world employs when dealing with issues of WWII . Whilst efforts by those with neo-nazi leanings to revise facts surrounding concentration camps and the inhumane treatment of the Jewish people would be greeted with loud condemnation, persistent Japanese efforts to revise history are curiously ignored. Often dismissed as merely a domestic issue of the Japanese , it is insult heaped on injury for their victims and a classic example of economic benefits outweighing moral concerns . One wonders if the American reaction be as non-existent if the Japanese had decided to gloss over Pearl Harbour or to refer to it as a liberation from American imperialist domination?! Probably not.

The Japanese wish to look to the future rather than the past. Fair enough, but developing the "ostrich" syndrome or collective amnesia is not a solution. It is pretty hard to convince the rest of Asia that they have been mistaken and only the Japanese have got the facts right.
The official line often used by Japanese diplomatic officials and law courts is the reference to post war treaties signed , which were to be the end-all for all WWII issues. There are 2 points to be noted. Firstly, these treaties were engineered by foreign Allied powers after the war, when most of Asia was colonized and what "independent" countries there were (like Korea or China) were in chaos. What kind of equitable agreements could there have been? Secondly, the American post war administration which took control of most post-war affairs in Japan may just have been a tad (gasp, gasp) biased in their treatment of the Japanese. A case of post atomic bomb guilt? To the Americans, the Japanese were victims, what seems to have been forgotten is that to the large majority of Asians, the Japanese were the transgressors. There were no fewer victims of Japanese wartime brutality across Asia than the victims of the atomic bombs. Could any legalistic treaty fully address the problems of comfort women or the human experiments conducted by the Japanese on prisoners of war? Incidentally, The latter was not even an officially acknowledged fact till the last 2 decades. Why? Well, the data on the effects of biological agents on humans proved to be useful to the US army and disappeared into that abyss called "Classified Information"

Dancing on raw nerves

Japanese reactions to the latest calls to apologise for the past must seem a tiresome repetition of the perennial cha-cha; denial, denial, innovate. What is disturbing is the new attitude of stiff arrogance with which the Japanese seem to face their detractors these days. This intractable attitude is hardly positive for any hopes of calming tensions in the region.
Recent moves in the last 2 years by the Japanese government have only increased the unease of its Asian neighbours. These include revision of the Japanese consitution, approval of revisionist Japanese history text, the increased drive to establish authority over disputed islands and the quest for a permanent UN security council seat . The increasingly arrogant and intractable nature of the Japanese government when facing the criticism that has greeted these events has merely revived the ghost of Japan's militarist past. Japanese insensitivity and lack of diplomacy vis-a-vis the disputed island and history text issues hardly speak well of the diplomacy required of a permanent security council member, rather it indicates the bullying nature of a country who has yet to face its past. There is more than a little irony that a country so insecure about its past is seeking a security council position.

The last time the Japanese were eager about expanding their power and status, it regretfully resulted in the tragedies of WWII. Not that circumstances are the same, but those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, or at least that's what history teachers would like us to believe. All the more so when the history text is not quite accurate.
The Americans may be all for a Japanese permanent security council seat, after all, they merely gain another ally in a council largely dominated by them. But can they guarantee that a leopard will shed its spots? Maybe the Americans should do some revising of history themselves, with particular focus on topics like Noriega and Saddam Hussein.

Resolving the unresolved

Only by facing the truth can the demons of the past and the stigma be truly exorcised. The Japanese people should bear that in mind the next time they conduct a mass amnesia exercise.

1st published on 10th April 2005