Japan-China war of words goes ballistic in Davos

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

Last updated: January 24th, 2014

Photo: AP

Anybody who thinks China's dispute with Japan is subject to rational calculation should have heard the astonishing outburst a few minutes ago by China's foreign minister, Wang Yi.

"We will never allow past aggressors to overturn the verdict of history," he began. It went downhill from there.

When asked what he thought about the latest warning by Japan's leader Shinzo Abe that the two countries are like England and Germany in 1914, he exploded with barely contained rage:

"Why would he make such a statement? Japanese leaders like to rewrite their history, but the Chinese people cannot forget episodes of history. The invasion of Manchuria in 1930 was an infamous chapter in Japan's history. In 1937 they instigated the Marco Polo bridge incident before launching an all-out onslaught on China.

"Thirty-five million Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed. Who was the instigator? Who was the troublemaker? It is all too clear."

He turned visceral over Mr Abe's recent visit to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo: "Even to this day the shrine still advocates that past aggression was justified, that the Pacific War was in self defence. It calls war criminals heroes, even today.

"How can a leader puts flowers on a shrine that violates international principles in this way? Japan's Class A criminals were likes the Nazis. Can you imagine a European leader laying a wreath at a Nazi memorial?"

On the Diaoyu-Senkaku islands – the "Sarajevo" hot spot in the East China Sea – he claimed that Tokyo ignored warnings from Beijing that any move to nationalise the islands would be a grave escalation: "They broke the status quo. We had no choice but to move."

I don't wish to take sides in this dispute but it is a sobering to listen to this from China's leading diplomat, an official who might normally try to play things down.

Yesterday in Davos I heard Japan's premier Abe fulminate over the dangers of an arms race in East Asia that could shatter the existing world order, even as he attacked the secrecy of China's defence budget.

"We must restrain military expansion in Asia, which could otherwise go unchecked. Disputes must be settled by the rule of law, and not through force and coercion," he said.

He went on to tell Gideon Rachman at the FT that China and Japan were in a "similar situation" to the German and England in 1914, caught in dangerous process of great power escalation – even though their economies were intertwined by trade.

As readers know, I have been writing about this parallel for a long time. China is exploiting incidents to test the willingness of the United States to stand behind its treaty alliance with Japan, just as Kaiser Wilhelm provoked spats to test England's willingness to stand behind its entente with France. It was a self-reinforcing process before 1914, and it is self-reinforcing now. All it takes to produce a catalyst is some "damn fool thing in the Balkans" to borrow a term.

Yet it is not just a calculated policy by China's Communist Party, a stirring up of revanchiste nationalism to replace the dead ideology of Maoism. Emotions are also running out of control, and Mr Abe is of course a red-flag for a bull.

The Japanese leader is a hard-core nationalist. Despite his pitch yesterday that Japan has "sworn an oath never again to wage a war", his government is in fact rearming fast. Japan has increased spending on military equipment by 23pc last year and is launching its largest ship since the Second World War, a helicopter carrier that can be used for hybrid jets.

Listening to the raw passion in the voices of Shinzo Abe and Wang Yi over the last 24 hours, I think there is an astonishing level complacency about the world's most dangerous fault-line.

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