The Politics of the Past: How Divergent Interpretations of History Shape East Asian Diplomatic Relations in the Present

David Cameron’s refusal to remove his poppy for his 2010 visit to China was revealing of a stark contrast in the significance granted to history in politics between himself (and the British political establishment as a whole) and his hosts. Whilst history has often played the role of a footnote to contemporary politics in the UK – as reflected by the severe lack of meaningful authority being granted to historians in any government department barring the Foreign Office, and even then only recently – it is central to the national self-portrayal of the Chinese nation. The ‘Century of Humiliation’ narrative that plays such a pivotal role in the story of the nation, as painted by the Chinese Communist Party, is one that the West would do well to take more notice of. Meanwhile, in Japan and Korea, the legacy of the Japanese colonial project looms large in contemporary relations. Perhaps as the ‘victors’ of modern history it is easy to relegate the past to that which went before. In Asia, where the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were ones of humiliation and soul-searching, it is impossible to simply sequester the past – it is intricately bound to the politics of the present.

China’s relations with the West underwent a radical shift in the Great Divergence of the nineteenth century, as European powers and the United States came to dominate the globalising world order. The reversal in fortunes suffered by the Qing Empire and, later, the modern Chinese state, has served to inform Chinese foreign policy and education ever since. Chairman Mao linked the Japanese imperialism of the early twentieth century to the Opium Wars of the nineteenth, and the same wars were used to justify Communist China’s ‘reaction’ against their Western oppressors. The Chinese national imagining has therefore come to be defined in opposition to, and in competition with, a West that remains stained by its past, a point of nuance that David Cameron failed so visibly to grasp in 2010, and one that continues to underlie the diplomatic fallacy that we are able to negotiate any sort of equal standing with the Chinese government. A competitive national consciousness has been fostered that means that ‘the West’ will always be cast as the natural point of comparison for China’s past failures and current successes, leaving them and the likes of the UK at polar ends of a dichotomy that western governments, until very recently, have failed to fully grasp.

A Nationalist officer guarding women prisoners likely to be comfort women used by the Communists, 1948.
(Credit: Jack Birns, The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images)

Elsewhere in East Asia, the memory of the Japanese military’s ‘comfort women’, who were drawn from across the Empire through the course of the Second World War and forced into what can only be described as sexual slavery, retains a pervasive political potency. The majority of these women were Korean and though estimates vary, they seem to have numbered in at least the tens, possibly hundreds of thousands. Indeed, such a range in estimates comes as a result of the topic’s controversial nature in the context of the countries’ poor diplomatic relations in recent years. The plight of the comfort women and the allocation of responsibility for the crimes against them has come to represent a clearly drawn battle line between the two countries – Japanese nationalists, the recently departed Shinzo Abe amongst them, seeking to play down the extent of official sanction for such atrocities, whilst Koreans pursue justice not only for the victims, but for the Korean nation as a whole. In order for the nations’ relations to reach some level of normality, the governments of both must look to find a compromise between what are currently polarised memories of the Japanese Empire. Forgetting those years is a luxury that only the oppressors may take, yet it is clear that in Korea too a way must be found for the nation to move on from the scars of their past.

Both of these cases demonstrate the historical dimension of diplomacy in the East Asian political sphere. A history of ruptures, clean breaks and colonial exploitation has bred national imaginings in which the traumas of the past play a central role. This significance is one that can be easily underestimated by those of us in the West for whom history has taken on an almost trivial status, as a backdrop to the present. Cameron underestimated it and it appears that our current leaders are also misunderstanding the inescapable threat posed by a Chinese leadership that places itself firmly in the context of historical competition with Western ‘imperialists’. Such cultural ignorance not only offends those whose culture is being ignored, but also hamstrings those guilty of that ignorance. Without a clear understanding of the other side’s thinking, diplomatic blunders like the poppy controversy are not likely to go anywhere anytime soon.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer

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