- - Thursday, January 30, 2014

Beijing wants the world to frame its military tensions with Tokyo in the context of World War II, when China was the victim and Japan the aggressor.

But the world keeps referring to the drama between the world’s No. 2 and No. 3 economies in a pre-World War I context. That’s when a rising and ambitious Germany, much like today’s China, could not overcome its differences with its neighbors and ignited a global conflagration.

This has enraged China’s government. It reacted with fury over a recent Financial Times article in which journalist Gideon Rachman compared today’s tensions in East Asia to those of pre-WWI Europe, and likened China to Germany under the Kaiser.

The People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Communist Party, rebuked Mr. Rachman’s comparison in its Jan. 18 overseas edition.

The People’s Daily insists that Japan is much like pre-World War II Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler. And it said the world’s key problem today is the West’s appeasement of a militarist Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a naive hope that Japanese aggressiveness will be directed toward a third country — the Soviet Union in Hitler’s case, and China in the case of today’s Japan.

“If we must study Rachman’s historical analogy, we believe that today’s Abe can be compared to Hitler of the past,” the People’s Daily article says. “If the world is committed to appeasement, if certain countries insist on playing their own little games, then history may well repeat itself, and the perpetrator of harm to others will eventually harm themselves.”

Beijing’s wrath failed to deter Mr. Rachman or derail his analogy. A week later, at the Davos conference in Switzerland, Mr. Abe appeared on a panel moderated by Mr. Rachman, who asked whether tensions between China and Japan are similar to those between Germany and Britain before World War I.

Mr. Abe said the situations are similar because robust trade and bilateral economic relations could not overcome security confrontations in both cases, and China’s rapid military buildup has made the communist government a source of instability in the Asia-Pacific region.

China’s propaganda machine “resolutely denounced” Mr. Abe’s remarks, and more than 40 Chinese ambassadors have in recent months penned op-ed articles or appeared on television shows in their host countries to repeat the same party line.

The main themes of this global PR campaign is that Japan today is irrevocably connected to its pre-1945 militaristic past and that Mr. Abe aims to revive Japanese imperialism, epitomized by his Dec. 26 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where some Japanese warriors from World War II are honored.

Despite Beijing’s PR campaign, the world persists with the pre-World War I analogy.

During Tuesday’s Senate confirmation hearing for Sen. Max Baucus to be the next U.S. ambassador to China, Sen. John McCain triggered a headline frenzy by bluntly comparing China to Germany, circa 1914.

“[China‘s] aggressive behavior — whether it be a mere collision with a United States ship or the imposition of the ADIZ [air defense identification zone], or whether it be many of the other actions they have taken — are part of a pattern of their ambition to dominate that part of the world,” the Arizona Republican said, adding that this “could lead to another ‘Guns of August,’” referencing the Pulitzer Prize-winning book centered around the first month of World War I in 1914.

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com and @Yu_Miles.

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