The sincerity of China’s September 3rd World War II Victory Parade is already being questioned by experts. Aside from Russian president Vladimir Putin and South Korean president Park Geun-hye, there were no current heads of state in attendance representing major powers during the war. Most foreign dignitaries in attendance — former British PM Tony Blair and former Japanese PM Tomiichi Murayama among them — were only just relevant enough not to be greeted with offense from their hosts.
If the parade was indeed concerned with memorializing the events now 70 years past and dedicated to reconciliation, there may have been a larger turnout. China’s Foreign Ministry has repeatedly downplayed suggestions that the event is a response to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Japanese nationalist platform; that was likely one of several motivations behind the parade’s orchestration. Most notably, China used the opportunity to debut the DF-21D missile, a weapon that threatens to antiquate the aircraft carrier. The missile’s glaring message should not be lost on American diplomats — Asia’s first carrier power was defeated 70 years ago, and China now has means to defeat the second.
However unsavory the Victory Parade seems, the Chinese government is right to feel slighted. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement marking Japan’s defeat in World War II was hardly a regional crowd-pleaser, eliciting generally negative responses from South Korea and China alike. Though Abe took care to include keywords like “apology” and “aggression,” he was every bit as careful to sidestep issues like colonialism and comfort women. A generous listener may have inferred remorse on those points, but to its intended audience, the statement was less apology than apologia. Former Prime Minister Murayama’s landmark 1995 apology remains the best-received of Japan’s postwar statements for its perceived sincerity and genuine remorse. Japan’s decision to send Murayama to the Victory Parade only teased Beijing with a Japanese leader they liked, now almost 20 years out of office.
China should be prepared for a few more years of dealing with Prime Minister Abe, which means that a different approach to reconciliation is in order. An unexpected new opportunity has cropped up in Japan, unlike any in recent memory. Mitsubishi Materials announced in July that it would apologize and offer monetary compensation to 3,765 Chinese nationals who worked as forced laborers for the Japanese firm during the war. Though their case was rejected by Japan’s Supreme Court, the Chinese former laborers continued their negotiations with Mitsubishi Materials, which has now agreed to recognize wartime human rights infringements independent of any court ruling. The company will pay more than ¥6 billion compensating former laborers and families, searching for missing victims and constructing a monument in their memory. As a result of the agreement, Mitsubishi Materials will be obliged to pay a one-time sum, but the outcome will be reconciliation and goodwill in its largest overseas market.
The applications of this approach are by no means limited to companies that took advantage of Chinese forced labor during the war. Japanese firms that depend on strong demand from China would certainly consider gestures like monument construction if it meant favorable treatment at the onset of a Chinese economic slowdown. Aside from steel and cement companies like Mitsubishi Materials, Japan’s auto manufacturers and semiconductor producers will likely require recourse if they are to weather the coming economic tumult in Asia; some would surely make conciliatory gestures and offer apologies for Japanese wartime conduct in exchange for preferred tax status or other benefits. Some would call it naked opportunism on the part of insincere corporations, but it would have the effect of normalizing Japanese apologetic rhetoric.
Beijing’s desire for a favorable Japanese apology for wartime aggression must be tempered with pragmatism. Prime Minister Abe will not yield his positions on history and accountability unless he is faced with domestic pressure to do so, and the Japanese electorate is altogether too apathetic to supply it. Cynical though it may sound, the most reliable means of fomenting change from abroad remains the pocketbook. China’s leaders will scream themselves hoarse before convincing the Japanese people that Abe’s policies are misguided — instead, why not bait Japan’s powerful private sector with a taste of the alternative?
Like Putin’s garish display of Russian power at the Moscow Victory Day Parade in May, China’s Victory Parade was all stick and no carrot. Beijing policymakers may be displeased with Prime Minister Abe’s nationalist posturing and perceived lack of remorse, but they can’t succeed in undermining his platform without first priming the constituency. Three years of “Abenomics” policies have not delivered the economic boost that Japan’s voters were hoping for; any glimmer of hope for growth has the potential to galvanize powerful domestic interests against Abe’s ruling coalition. Courting Japan’s private sector would be a new direction in China’s quest for reconciliation, but after 70 years, it’s well worth a try.