Chris Bambery analyses the nationalist spat over a small group of islands between China and Japan. He argues the tensions are rooted in a historic imperial rivalry that is not over

‘A plague on both your houses’ might be an understandable reaction to the recent spat between China and Japan. The quarrel is over who has ownership of the uninhabited Senkaku (as they are called in Japan) or Diaoyu (as in China) Islands, a small chain in the East China Sea, west of the Japanese island of Okinawa.

Clashes between Chinese fishing boats and the Japanese coast guard were followed on 15 August by the planting of the Chinese flag on the islands by Hong Kong based activists. They were promptly arrested leading to a wave of anti-Japanese protests across China. That the date was the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945 at the end of World War Two incited nationalist anger in Japan.

The tension between the two countries reflects profound changes in their relationship in recent times. Japanese investment was key to China’s economic rise. In the 1980s and 1990s China’s growth has out shone its neighbour whose economy has been in the doldrums for two decades. There have been suggestions Chinese officials have given the nod to strikes at Japanese owned factories.

Cynics might point out that with Japan’s prime minister, Noda, languishing with an approval rating of 22 percent, he has an interest in stoking nationalist support for keeping hold of the islands.

The conflict over the islands could simply be viewed as a result of the change in the economic and political pecking order of the two states but there is rather more to this than that.

The islands were placed under US control after the Japanese surrender in 1945. In 1971 Washington handed them over to Japan despite the fact that China laid claim to them. That was two years before President Richard Nixon’s surprise visit to Beijing and the recognition of the People’s Republic of China by Washington.

It’s hard to remember that until then the Americans and their allies had recognized the government of Taiwan as the rulers of China, despite the fact they had been driven out in 1949. The victory of the Chinese Communists over Washington’s client regime of Chiang Kai Shek’s Guomindang regime was a humiliation for the US who had looked to control of the country as a key aim during the Second World War. The humiliation was added to when the Chinese People’s Army intervened in the Korean War shortly after – almost driving US forces from the peninsula.

Japan was under US occupation from 1945-1951 and there was little attempt to eradicate the military leaders, industrialists and politicians who had taken the country to war. Very quickly the Americans saw that Japan could become a bastion against the war time radicalization which had seen powerful national liberation movements emerge in Indochina, Malaya, the Philippines and, of course, China. It also became a key base for US forces and a supplier of material during the Korean War. There was little or no attempt to acknowledge Japanese war crimes in China and elsewhere, let alone to atone for them.

The modern development of the two states reveals a crucial contrast. In the mid-nineteenth century Japan experienced a top down industrialization following the restoration of imperial rule. As in Bismarck’s Germany this was driven by the need to arm after American war ships arrived and threatened force if the country did not open its market to the west. Japan became the only capitalist power outside North America and Europe. That entailed colonial expansion – at the expense of China.

By the late 19th century imperial China was in its death throes and the western powers were like vultures demanding territory and economic concessions which only accelerated the country’s rapid decline. In 1894 Japan took control of Korea, defeating Chinese attempts to stop them. It was the first of a series of clashes which would culminate in 1931 with the Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria. Six years later the Japanese re-opened hostilities with a full scale invasion aimed at occupying China. This war would last until 1945. Japanese occupation involved massacres of civilians on a grand scale as well as the forcible enlistment of labour and much else.

The Chiang Kai Shek regime, despite receiving massive US aid, was so corrupt it could not mount sustained resistance to the Japanese and as the economy collapsed famine followed.

The Chinese Communists under Mao Ze Dong would win popular support because they were prepared to resist the Japanese, to carry out land reform and did not rob the peasantry. After Japan’s defeat they would emerge triumphant in the civil war which followed.

Ancient history? No. The legacy of the Japanese invasion and occupation is a bitter one, added to by Japan’s refusal to recognize this. The People’s Republic is a product of a national struggle to unify and free the country which centred on fighting the Japanese. Little mention is made of all this in media overage of the conflict over the islands and it’s a good reason for saying rather more than a “plague on both houses.”

Of course both countries are today world powers and with Japan the biggest trading partner of China there’s good reasons not to go to war. Yet there are also huge unresolved issues from the first half of the last century. Those issues are not going to go away – indeed they are a live backdrop for present antagonisms.

From Communiqué

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.