(Deutsche Welle) For the first time, China will commemorate the Allied victory in WWII with a military parade. The major Western leaders are not attending. Beijing accuses them of failing to recognize its role in winning the war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will be the only head of state from the old Allied powers to attend China’s commemoration on Thursday of their victory in World War Two.
The leaders of the United States, Great Britain and France will be conspicuously absent from the ceremony. London has dispatched Kenneth Clarke, a leading conservative politician who’s held numerous cabinet-level positions. Paris has sent Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Washington will be represented by its ambassador, Max Baucus.
This lukewarm response to China stands in stark contrast to how the West commemorates its own contribution to the war. The leader of every major Allied nation attended the 70th-anniversary commemoration of the landings at Normandy last year.
US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Queen of England, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and, of course, French President Francois Hollande were all present to honor the sacrifice of Western troops.
In a press conference in June, China’s deputy propaganda minister, Wang Shiming, criticized Western nations for lacking “an objective and just recognition of China’s position and role in the world anti-fascist war,” as Beijing refers to World War Two. According to British historian Rana Mitter, Chinese criticisms are largely accurate.
“Both in terms of sacrifice and achievement, China’s role during the war does need to be more acknowledged in the West,” Mitter, author of “Forgotten Ally: China’s WWII,” told DW. “In terms of what it did, 14 million Chinese or more were killed during the war. Nearly 100 million became refugees.”
People tend to forget the staggering breadth of Imperial Japan’s expansionist ambitions, historian Gerhard Weinberg said.
Tokyo sought not only to conquer all of Asia, but it also had plans to seize significant portions of the Western Hemisphere, including Alaska and western Canada as well as large swaths of South America and the Caribbean. From 1937 until the war’s end, Beijing was a bulwark against Japanese conquest, fighting longer than any other Allied power.
“Japan could not deploy its troops to where it wanted to deploy them because such a large portion of them were tied down in military operations in China,” Weinberg, the author of “A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II,” told DW.
With Japanese troops pinned down in China, the United States was able to advance toward mainland Japan through its military campaign in the Pacific, one which culminated in the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in Japan’s unconditional surrender.
Cold War split
But Mao Zedong’s communists did not bear the brunt of the Japanese onslaught. Their US-backed nationalist enemies the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, did most of the fighting. After the Japanese surrender, Mao’s forces went on to defeat Chiang’s nationalists in the Chinese Civil War and establish the People’s Republic of China. The Cold War ensued and the United States and China, war-time allies, became enemies.
“In the end the government that the United States supported was crushed by the communists,” Weinberg said. “To many Americans the effort ended up quite differently from what Americans at the government level and the public had hoped for.”
The United States continued to view Chiang’s nationalists as China’s legitimate government, though they had retreated to Taiwan, and refused to recognize the communist People’s Republic for 30 years. As a consequence, American historians had difficulty conducting research on China’s involvement in the Second World War.
“China’s isolation from the West meant that Western researchers couldn’t go to look for documents, they couldn’t take part in conferences, they couldn’t take part in the writing of the narrative of China’s war history during those Cold War years,” Mitter said.
It’s not just the United States and the West who haven’t recognized China’s role, according to Mitter. During the Cold War, the Chinese communist party wasn’t particularly interested in teaching an accurate account of the country’s resistance against Japan. To do so would recognize the critical role played by their nationalist enemies.
But views of the war have changed in China as the country’s ideology has shifted from strict communism to a new nationalism, according to Mitter. Recognizing the role played by Chiang’s forces now seems less threatening to party elites like President Xi Jinping, who has actively campaigned for China’s wartime contribution to be placed in a global context.
“There was a real shift toward regarding China as part of an international alliance along with the United States, the Soviets and the British. And that leads to what you hear nowadays – it’s far more common to hear the war described as part of a world anti-fascist struggle,” Mitter said.
China’s geopolitical claims
Thursday’s parade isn’t just a commemoration of underappreciated history. It’s also a demonstration of contemporary China’s military might. Some 12,000 Chinese troops will march alongside contingents from other countries, including Russia.
According to Mitter, Beijing wants to signal that China has become a powerful country and cannot be invaded and occupied as it was during the Second World War. Tensions are running high in East Asia, and China’s rise makes many of its neighbors nervous.
Beijing is locked in territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines over various islands in the East and South China Seas. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing his country to amend its pacifist constitution and allow foreign military deployments, stoking Beijing to accuse Tokyo of militarism.
Western nations, first and foremost the United States, are also skeptical of China’s intentions. Washington has sought to deepen ties with its Asian allies in response to Beijing’s rise. Historian Mitter suggested that Western nations decided against sending higher level officials for political reasons.
“There might be a desire to link a memory of the war in China with China’s geopolitical claims in the eastern South China Sea today,” Mitter said. “That will be difficult for Western countries to endorse, and I think that explains why they’ve been cautious about sending higher level leaders to take part.”