Na­tion’s role crit­i­cal to Al­lies’ WWII suc­cess

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

China’s con­tri­bu­tion to the over­all Al­lied vic­tory dur­ing WorldWar II is a topic that is gain­ing in­creas­ing his­tor­i­cal at­ten­tion in theWest. I was mo­ti­vated to write a book about China’s wartime role ( China’sWar with Ja­pan, 19371945: The Strug­gle for Sur­vival —US ti­tle, For­got­ten Ally) be­cause I felt the sig­nif­i­cance of the Chi­nese con­tri­bu­tion to WorldWar II was not suf­fi­ciently un­der­stood in theWest. To un­der­stand this sig­nif­i­cance, we need to con­sider the al­ter­na­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties dur­ing one of the worst years of the war, 1938.

A year af­ter the war broke out at theMarco Polo Bridge near Bei­jing in July 1937, much of eastern China lay in Ja­panese hands. In late Oc­to­ber, the tem­po­rary mil­i­tary head­quar­ters at Wuhan, Hubei province, fell to the en­emy. Many out­side observers as­sumed that China could not hold out.

Yet China did not sur­ren­der. Although it had lit­tle as­sis­tance from the out­side world, bar­ring some mil­i­tary aid from the USSR, both the Kuom­intang and Com­mu­nist lead­er­ships con­tin­ued to plan for re­sis­tance. But if Chi­ang Kai-shek’s gov­ern­ment had made a dif­fer­ent de­ci­sion in 1938, then China’s fate would have been very dif­fer­ent. If China had sur­ren­dered in 1938, Ja­pan would es­sen­tially have treated China as a colony. Ja­pan’s forces would also have been freed for an all-out as­sault on the USSR, South­east Asia, or even Bri­tish In­dia.

TheWestern pow­ers did come to re­al­ize China’s value. By 1940, sig­nif­i­cant unof­fi­cial flows of fi­nance and sup­plies were com­ing to China. By that year, Bri­tain was at war with Ger­many, and the US was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly aware that its Pa­cific po­si­tion was in dan­ger from Ja­pan.

On Dec 7 1941, the Ja­panese at­tacked Pearl Har­bor and the war be­came gen­uinely global, in par­tic­u­lar when Adolf Hitler de­clared war on the US just a week later. Yet there re­mained a dif­fer­ence be­tween theWestern and Chi­nese views of their roles in the war.

In the Al­lied view, China was a vic­tim. It had been in­vaded and de­served sym­pa­thy. But in the end, they be­lieved that its most im­por­tant role was to act as a bar­rier to fur­ther Ja­panese ac­tion in Asia. The Chi­nese re­sis­tance was hold­ing down 600,000 or more Ja­panese troops. In the early part of the war, this meant that those troops could there­fore not be trans­ferred to the rest of Asia easily. But the Amer­i­cans and Bri­tish knew that the Chi­nese Na­tion­al­ist armies were weak­ened by four years of re­sis­tance and could not easily be de­ployed out­side China it­self. Chi­ang Kai-shek’s regime was weak­ened greatly from within, as cor­rup­tion, bu­reau­cratic in­com­pe­tence and sheer ex­haus­tion ate away at its strength.

The view of theWestern al­lies was per­fectly log­i­cal. But the prob­lem was that theWest failed to un­der­stand how the war looked through Chi­nese eyes. For the Na­tion­al­ists and Com­mu­nists, the war had be­gun in 1937, that is, four years be­fore Pearl Har­bor. It was true that China’s armies were weak, but many of the best troops had been sac­ri­ficed in ma­jor bat­tles such as Shang­hai and Xuzhou. It was also true that the gov­ern­ment was in­ef­fi­cient and cor­rupt, and that the econ­omy was in a bad shape.

How­ever, China’s cap­i­tal had moved to Chongqing at high speed, the city had been flat­tened by re­peated air raids, and the gov­ern­ment had been iso­lated from much of the out­side world for years, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to run a nor­mal ad­min­is­tra­tion.

China’s war ef­forts need to be un­der­stood in its own terms, and com­mem­o­rated for the right rea­sons. China could not have won the war on its own. To de­feat Ja­pan, it had to rely on Western, and in par­tic­u­lar, Amer­i­can fi­nance, mil­i­tary sup­port and sup­plies. Also, it was rea­son­able that the Al­lies set pri­or­i­ties: first Europe, then the Pa­cific, then China. But the West did not ac­knowl­edge that China’s con­tri­bu­tions were also cru­cial to the war ef­fort. China re­sisted in 1938 when it could have sur­ren­dered be­fore the war in Europe even started. It held down huge num­bers of Ja­panese troops on its ter­ri­tory. It acted as a bea­con to other non-Western coun­tries, show­ing that it was pos­si­ble to fight with theWest and still strongly op­pose im­pe­ri­al­ism.

There are many lessons that can be learned from China’s ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ingWorldWar II. One is the im­por­tance of new and cre­ative po­lit­i­cal di­a­logue. Dur­ing much of the war, there were sig­nif­i­cant and free-rang­ing po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sions be­tween China’s ma­jor and mi­nor po­lit­i­cal ac­tors on many is­sues from greater demo­cratic rep­re­sen­ta­tion to post­war in­ter­na­tion­al­ism.

Another key les­son was the im­por­tance of strong but flex­i­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions in the re­gion. China and Ja­pan went to war in part be­cause of the fail­ure of the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem. To­day, the US, China and Ja­pan need to work on a con­sen­sual, open and mu­tu­ally agreed in­sti­tu­tions that would over­come the legacy of those fail­ures. The au­thor is di­rec­tor of the China Cen­tre at Ox­ford Univer­sity and his most re­cent book is: China’sWar with Ja­pan, 1937-1945: The Strug­gle for Sur­vival (US ti­tle: For­got­ten Ally).

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