Max Hastings – Daily Mail September 20, 2012
A few years ago, nobody in Asia gave much thought to the Senkaku islands. They form a cluster of eight pimples in the East China Sea, mid-way between Taiwan and Japanese Okinawa, devoid of people, culture and — by all accounts — beauty.
Yet suddenly, they have become the focus of a dispute between China and Japan which is growing so bitter that doomsters fear Beijing might even go to war over them.
The dispute is one of a dozen involving islands off the Asian mainland — some claimed by Vietnam, others by South Korea, others again by the Philippines — in which China is wielding a big stick.
In some cases, it covets fish stocks around the rocks, in others there is oil under the sea; elsewhere, Beijing merely wants to extend its territorial waters.
What alarms the United States, as well as the regional powers, is the ferocity with which China is pursuing its claims.
The row about the Senkakus escalated when the Tokyo government recently purchased them from their owner, a Japanese businessman. In the past week, the ownership of the islands has provoked demonstrations in a dozen Chinese cities, outbreaks of violence and vandalism against Japanese targets which have prompted some of its industrial giants — Nissan, Honda, Canon, Panasonic — to shut down their plants in that country.
Some Japanese residents of China have shut themselves in their homes for safety. They feel unable to rely on the Chinese police for protection, because it is impossible for sustained vandalism to happen without official acquiescence. Meanwhile, the Chinese government continues to issue tough statements about the islands, which it calls the Diaoyus.
Washington, as well as Tokyo, is alarmed by the spectacle of China playing rough.
Nobody forgets that in the past, the Chinese have sometimes used force to get their way in border disputes: they occupied Tibet and fought a bitter war with Vietnam. Fears persist about China’s obsessive determination to reunite the mainland with offshore Taiwan, left in the old Chinese government’s hands after the 1949 communist revolution.
The quarrel over the Senkakus has reawakened atavistic Chinese hostility and resentment towards Japan, which goes back more than a century.
In 1894, the Japanese seized and colonised the Korean peninsula — a staging post towards an occupation of China — and sank a Chinese fleet. China’s Qing regime had to sign a humiliating peace surrendering part of Manchuria — effectively north-east China — and the Pescadore islands, off modern Taiwan.
Then, on September 18, 1931, the Japanese staged a faked attack on their own railway in their sector of Manchuria, blamed the Chinese, and used the incident as a pretext to overrun all of that region. (That date lives in infamy in China — which is why violent demonstrations took place in the country this week.)
The Japanese renamed the area Manchukuo, and installed the emperor Pu Yi as their puppet ruler.
In the decade that followed, they extended their empire with a ruthlessness that shocked the world. In 1932, after a Chinese mob in Shanghai attacked five Japanese monks in the city, the Japanese air force took reprisals by bombing the entire city, killing thousands of civilians.
In 1937, Japanese army officers manufactured a new incident at the ancient Marco Polo bridge outside the northern Chinese city of Tientsin — in which the Japanese had a garrison under the terms of a treaty. Claiming that their troops had been fired on by Chinese soldiers, they launched a full-scale invasion of China. What happened thereafter has never been forgotten or forgiven — not least because today’s Japanese are reluctant to admit past war crimes
Having fought their way through Shanghai, sacking and killing, they embarked on a campaign which showed the world the nature of Japanese militarism.
Tokyo’s soldiers marched on the Chinese Nationalist capital, Nanking, killing and burning everything in their path in the spirit of ‘Bushido’ — the ‘Code of the Warrior’. Their route led them through Suchow, one of the oldest cities in China, famous for its silk embroideries, palaces and temples set beside the Tai Hu lake.
On November 19 in heavy rain, Japanese troops overran Suchow, ‘the Venice of China’, then spent days sacking the city. Thousands of women were seized to be raped by the conquerors, and most of the rest of the population fled.
Prince Asaka Yashuhiko, uncle of the Japanese emperor Hirohito, took personal command of the 50,000-strong army. His men went on to storm Nanking, overcoming a much larger Chinese garrison. Then an order was issued systematically to kill thousands of Chinese prisoners, whom the conquerors despised for accepting defeat, and whom they had no means to feed.
A Japanese soldier named Azuma wrote: ‘They all walked in droves, like ants crawling on the ground … a herd of ignorant sheep … whispering to each other. It felt quite foolish to think that we had been fighting to the death against these ignorant slaves, some were even 12-year-old boys’.
On the evening of December 17, 1939, the Japanese herded thousands of prisoners, their hands bound, to the bank of the Yangtze river. There, abruptly, Japanese machine-gunners opened fire. Within minutes, amidst frenzied screams of excitement from the killers, and of terror and agony from their victims, hundreds of Chinese were thrashing wounded or dying beside the river.
The Japanese conducted their slaughters with refinements of cruelty that appalled the world, which soon learned of them. In Nanking, having killed the military prisoners, they turned on the civilian population.
Imai Mastake, a Japanese correspondent, wrote: ‘On Hsiakwan wharves, there was the dark silhouette of a mountain made of dead bodies. About 50 to 100 people were toiling there, dragging bodies … into the Yangtze. The bodies dripped blood, some of them still alive and moaning weakly, their limbs twitching.
‘The labourers were working in total silence, as in a pantomime. After a while, the coolies had done their job of dragging corpses, and the soldiers lined them up along the river. Rat-tat-tat machine-gun fire could be heard. The coolies fell backwards into the river and were swallowed by the raging currents. The pantomime was over. A Japanese officer … estimated that 20,000 persons had been executed.’
Another correspondent, Yukio Omata, watched Chinese prisoners meeting their fate at the killing ground of Hsiakwan. ‘Those in the first row were beheaded, those in the second row were forced to dump the severed bodies into the river before they themselves were beheaded. The killing went on non-stop, from morning until night.’
Westerners know all about Japanese atrocities towards our own soldiers and civilians in World War II, but sometimes forget that 15 million Chinese died during Japan’s campaigns in their country between 1937 and 1945. Indeed, some Chinese historians claim the total was up to 50 million.
No matter what is the true number, the Japanese behaved unspeakably towards the people of China, and have never shown much penitence. While modern Germans are acutely conscious of the crimes of Hitler, most modern Japanese are oblivious to the crimes of their own forebears.
Some of their apologists claim Japan has said sorry for its role in World War II. But a deafening silence persists in Japan’s schools and universities on the subject, and there are yawning gaps in their textbooks.
Every Japanese is taught that their country was the victim of the first atomic bombs. Few know their grandfathers enjoyed nothing more than chopping off a few Chinese heads. As recently as 2008, the commander of the Japanese air force, General Toshio Tamogami, published an essay suggesting that Japan had done nothing to be ashamed of in the war. Tamogami complained bitterly: ‘Even now, there are many people who think that our country’s aggression caused unbearable suffering to the countries of Asia.’
Not so, said the general: ‘We need to realise that many Asian countries take a positive view of the Greater East Asia War. It is certainly a false accusation that our country was an aggressor nation.’
Tamogami said that Japan was entitled by treaty to act as it did in China, and claimed that Korea, during its half century as a Japanese colony, was ‘prosperous and safe’. He rejected the verdicts of the Allied tribunals which convicted Japan’s war criminals in 1945 for their barbaric treatment of enemy troops, including Britons.
To be fair, the Tokyo government sacked the general following furious protests from Beijing. But it remains amazing that one of Japan’s most senior commanders could make such claims in the 21st century.
But Tamogami wrote what many Japanese nationalists think, including some academic historians.
Not only the Chinese government, but also ordinary people, are enraged when such things are said in Japan, and when Japanese courts reject lawsuits from Chinese former sex-slaves and forced labourers.
Few Japanese, too, recognise the enormity of the atrocities committed by the wartime Japanese Army’s biological warfare group, Unit 731, for which no one was ever punished. Under its aegis, thousands of men, women and children — including foreign prisoners — were killed in gruesome experiments designed to test the limits of the human body.
Unsurprisingly, there is real popular Chinese bitterness towards Japan, and it explodes into the open when the Beijing government highlights such a quarrel as that about the Senkaku islands.
Whatever are China’s motives, its behaviour shows a growing willingness to intimidate and bully its neighbours. Nobody is sure just how far Beijing will press its claims in the East China Sea — perhaps including China’s rulers themselves.
Their handling of international relations is often clumsy and brutal. They are still groping, as they explore how best to exploit their ever-growing power and wealth.
But all this makes China a dangerous nation. Its neighbours think so: they are clamouring for closer defence ties with the United States. Japan is installing new U.S. anti-missile radar systems, which means that the Americans may yet find themselves drawn into the growing dispute.
China has gone to war in the past to make good its claims to territory. It is possible that it will do so again.
The Senkakus scarcely feature on a large-scale map. Yet one day they, or one of the other disputed island groups in the troubled waters off China, could precipitate a breakdown of global peace — a crisis that would have fearful implications for us all.