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China and U.S. Should Draw Lessons from World War II

Jul 08 , 2015
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

It is rather timely to reflect on the precious historical lessons of World War II for today’s China-US relations on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of victory in the war and gain some new insights therefrom.

The history of World War II proves that justice will triumph over evil, light over darkness and progress over reaction. It also teaches us the following:

First, difference in social system is not the fundamental reason behind war or conflict, and countries of different social systems may seek common ground while reserving differences and jointly deal with shared challenges of mankind so long as they follow historical trends and the people’s will. During World War II, even though there were conflicts of interests and policy differences among China, US, UK, France and the Soviet Union, they were examples of countries with different social systems able to coexist peacefully, cooperate close and fight enemies together. Seventy years have gone by. Mankind today is still confronted with some common enemies, such as threats of war, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, environmental pollution, climate change, poverty and diseases. Though countries have their own interests and appeals, they should and can develop appropriate cooperation in dealing with these common threats.

Second, change in the character of state does not necessarily lead to a different view of history. Even though the drastic changes in the former Soviet Union shocked the whole world and there are still debates over their path of development in transitioning Russia, the various political forces in Russia do not differ on safeguarding the achievements of World War II or upholding the relevant international agreements such as the Potsdam Proclamation and Cairo Declaration. In other words, they still have the basic patriotic sentiment, national pride and sense of historical justice. The Japanese authorities are exactly the other way round. In the evolving political ecology in Japan, revisionist appraisals of World War II have become more prominent. The rightists go all out to distort history and cover up crimes against the opinion of the world. Such acts are naturally condemned by the international community.

 

Third, in the past 70 years, both mankind and the times have been evolving, with peace and development gradually becoming the main theme. To recognize this reality is essential. Even with such big event as the Ukraine crisis and with US-Russia relations so tense, President Obama said on more than one occasion that the world would not return to the Cold War. In this connection, what China or the US considers first is no longer “Who is our enemy?”, but rather “Who are our partners?” The proposition to create a new model of major power relations is thus consistent with the historical trend. As the competition between cooperation partners, its existence is only natural. Competition does not mean confrontation. There are rules to follow.

Fourth, China and the US both have clear-cut core interests: sovereignty and security. There is no specific factor leading to conflict between them. Since the adoption of its reform and opening-up policy, China has always respected the special status and global influence of the US and objectively accepted the international order dominated by the US even though China stands for changing the unreasonable part of the old order such as unilateralism. For example, on the question of the Diaoyu Islands, what is the US needs to do is rather simple, i.e., review the Potsdam Proclamation and confirm the existence of dispute between China and Japan rather than quoting its Security Treaty with Japan. With that, China and Japan may discuss a solution in the spirit of shelving disputes and engaging in joint development. Partiality for Japan is nothing less than giving a tacit agreement to the legality of the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor planned by war criminals enshrined and worshipped at the Yasukuni Shrine.

Fifth, various reasons exist behind the distortions of World War II history in today’s world. There is the inertia of a Cold War mentality that seriously obstructs people in some countries from making an objective appraisal. There are schemes to serve special political purposes. There are also echoing voices either shaped by ignorance or misled by distorted advocacy. However, there is no lack of people with vision in the world. When West German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt down at the monument to Polish victims, his nation stood up. Former German president Roman Herzog once said to the effect that a nation will not exist forever without a thorough understanding of its own history. Visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed in Tokyo that facing up to history is a precondition for post-war reconciliation. Even in Japan, there are people safeguarding the truth of World War II history.

Sixth, as the old Chinese saying goes, “past experience, if not forgotten, is a guide for the future”. Events commemorating the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II will be opportunities for China to demonstrate its determination to safeguard peace and promote development in the world, unswervingly pursue peaceful development and strengthen mutual trust and mutually beneficial cooperation with World War II allies including the US. As President Xi pointed out, “to open up the future, we must remember history; and to safeguard peace, we must not forget about the war.”

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