War provides lessons for both sides
Chinese commemorate the war of resistance against Japan (1937-1945) largely to help forgetful Japanese politicians review history. But China’s reflections of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) on its 120th anniversary last weekend are mostly to delve into the causes of China’s utter defeat. And some of the causes still bear relevance to China and its interaction with Japan today.
The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) launched its Westernization Movement (1861-94), and bought the most powerful battleships from the United Kingdom and Germany to form the Beiyang Fleet, the strongest navy in Asia after the second Opium War (1856-1860).
To the mandarins’ horror and shame, the Beiyang Fleet was routed in a four-hour naval battle with the Japanese navy because of poor training, organization, logistics and tactics. Except for several heroic captains and others who went down with their ships while trying to ram their foes, the war left plenty of reasons why Chinese should avoid going down the same disastrous road again.
“Do not attribute China’s defeat to Japan’s cunning schemes and intelligence. The corruption in the army doomed the war,” Luo Yuan, vicechairman of the Beijing-based China Strategic Culture Promotion Association, told the Shanghai-based Wenhui Daily in a recent interview.
“The Qing Dynasty rulers’ control over the army became loose after they conquered China. That the armies in different provinces were allowed to do business to earn their own pay and provisions made the graft in the military system even worse.”
Luo’s remarks make more sense after several senior officials, including Xu Caihou, the former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, were sacked recently on charges of power abuse and graft in China’s military.
Luo pointed out that the military system seems secluded from other walks of life and immune from all civil problems, but its depth of corruption may be even worse and will threaten the security of the whole nation. “The army must maintain its morale and discipline and always be ready to fight,” he said.
The guiding principle for the Beiyang Fleet was to defend Beijing, the capital, in the small Bohai Bay. This went against the nature of a navy. Some analysts believe the wrong mission also bound the fleet’s development.
Jin Yi’nan, a professor of national security studies with the National Defence University of the People’s Liberation Army of China, argues that power and resolve are the prerequisites for rights and interests, and China should take concrete action to let the world know about its resolve and will to safeguard and strive for its own rights and interests on the sea.
“The war 120 year ago indicates that in international relations, the rights and interests of one country can only be realized through its own endeavoring. Justice is an ally with the powerful, but a foe with the weak. If China does not fight for its own rights and interests in the South China Sea and East China Sea, it will lose them by only reiterating it deserves the rights and interests there,” Jin noted.
“Peace does not equate with security, especially low-quality peace, which is actually a compromise after sacrificing security,’’ he said. “Security should be a more fundamental pursuit for all nations than peace. All countries love peace. But a country must always defend security through preparing for war. China should pay more attention to ensuring its security rather than peace. Without security as foundation, peace is nonsense.”
That reflection on the war goes far beyond military action. War is a turning point for both sides. It is actually a fight between backward feudalism and advanced capitalism, some analysts maintain.
The Treaty of Shimonoseki signed after the war in 1895 ruled that the Qing Empire cede Taiwan and Liaoning peninsula to Japan and paid the winner of the war about three times Qing government’s annual revenue as an indemnity. The shame brought by the treaty — portrayed as “humiliating the country and forfeiting sovereignty” — awakened many Chinese, and turned them from gradual reformists to radical nationalists, including Sun Yat-sen, founding father of the Republic of China in 1911 after the Qing Dynasty ended.
Yet, in the 30 years after the 1894 war, China remained largely split by wars among warlord. Most Chinese people had no consciousness of a unified national identity at the time. It was Japan’s second invasion of China in the 1930s that united the whole nation and shaped national identification.
The Qing Dynasty focused on importing equipment and technology from the West. But the Meiji Restoration in Japan, which happened roughly at the same time as the Westernization Movement in the Qing Dynasty, paid more attention to the transplanting of the West’s constitutional governance, market economy, entrepreneurship and education system, which put Japan on the right track of modernization.
To some extent, China’s transformation from a country ruled by the elite few to a rule-by-law country had not yet been accomplished until now.
Jin said Chinese people today should consolidate their belief in the rule of law with confidence that the Communist Party of China has the resolve and ability to operate by law.
Japan’s total defeat in World War II led to its pacifist constitution, which represents the Japanese people’s universal expectation of abandoning wars, said Karatani Kōjin, a Japanese philosopher.
“That Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes on a war crisis as an excuse to revise the constitution will make the pacifist constitution valueless,” he said.
Karatani Kōjin thinks that only when Japan moves in the direction of the pacifist constitution will it win universal recognition in the international community and walk out from the shadow of wars that has been cast over the nation since 120 year ago.
He hinted that if Japanese politicians abolish the constitution and always intend to trigger a foreign crisis with China as a scapegoat, the history that Japanese feel shameful about will be repeated.
But the shadow is not that easy for Japan to rid, because the situation today is similar to that of 120 years ago in many key aspects.
On one hand, the regimes of both Ito Hirobumi, Japan’s first prime minister, and Abe attach importance to loyalty to Japan’s emperor and military power.
Wang Shaopu, a researcher of Japanese studies with Shanghai Jiaotong University, said: “Ito Hirobumi’s call for loyalty to the emperor is progress from the Bakuhan system it replaced, while Abe’s right-wing proposal to make use of the emperor is a setback in today’s context.”
On the other hand, the East Asia’s power balance was changed with Japan’s rise in late 1800s, and is now being reshaped with China’s rise, though more peaceful and inclusive.
“Ito Hirobumi and Shinzo Abe share striking similarity in that both of them intended to take nationalistic approaches to seek Japan’s hegemony when the international order of the Asian and Pacific region is changing along with the changes of power balances,” said Wang.
Abe advocates that Japan, the US, India and Australia form a strategic alliance to contain China for peace, order and prosperity.
A family can choose its neighbors by moving to a new place. But a country cannot. The 120th anniversary of the war between two neighbors and the history after that war should remind China how to be a better country with a stronger sense of security, and teach Japan the importance of “Do not to others what you do not wish them to do to you”, a core value of Confucianism, that Japan has claimed to have learned by heart for 2000 years.
Sailors line up on a new missile destroyer Kunming on March 21 in Shanghai.