Li makes his Potsdam declaration
By Brendan O'Reilly
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has used his visit to Germany, part of tour of Asia and Europe, to make a direct appeal to international public opinion over the increasingly dangerous standoff between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.
During his inaugural European journey as premier, Li Keqiang visited Potsdam, the scene of the Potsdam Declaration of July 1945, made two months after the surrender of Germany to the Allied powers, by which the leaders of Britain, the Republic of China and the United States called for Japan's unconditional
surrender. The Potsdam Declaration stipulated "Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine."
By invoking the memory of World War II, Li is hoping to advance Beijing's position in the deepening territorial dispute with Japan. As Japanese leaders make new statements downplaying Japan's wartime atrocities, the conflict may be entering a new and potentially dangerous phase.
Premier Li made use of the historical backdrop of Potsdam to declare: "The site of the Potsdam meeting is a place of historic significance. The Potsdam Proclamation clearly states that Japan must return China's territories of Northeast China, Taiwan and other islands after surrendering. The victory and international order had been achieved at the cost of sacrifices of tens of millions of lives." 
Li went on to call on Japanese leaders to face history in order to open up the future, and highlighted an implied contrast between Japan's historical intransigence and "peace-loving" Germany.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, quickly condemned Premier Li's remarks: "These were comments that completely ignored history ... The Senkaku islands are our territory in terms of history and international law and we have administrative control over them." 
Of course the true nature of sovereignty over the uninhabited islands is not as clear as either side suggests. What is significant is Premier Li's appeal to the legacy of World War II at this stage in the standoff.
The victory of the allied cause in World War II established the current international order, which is considered sacrosanct by nearly all major nations. It is no coincidence that the major allied powers of the war - the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China - all sit as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Meanwhile, the horrific legacy of the war is deeply ingrained into the collective German consciousness. Japan remains unique in the degree to which the bloody facts of the war are downplayed or denied outright by leading politicians.
Toru Hashimoto, the major of Osaka and leader of the Japan Restoration Association, this month claimed that the use of Korean and Chinese sex slaves by Japanese during World War II was "necessary". During a press conference on Monday, he acknowledged the use of the so-called "comfort women" violated their "human rights". However, he went on to declare: "The question is whether is was the state's will to engage in the organized abduction of women for human trafficking. The fundamental understanding of the majority of Japanese historians is that there is no evidence of the involvement of the government."  Toru then went on to blame the United States, Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union for engaging in similar "sexual misconduct" during the war.
Such historical denials are not restricted to the fringe of Japanese politics. During recent questioning in the Japanese Diet's upper House of Councilors, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was grilled by a member of the opposition as to whether Japanese soldiers forced Korean girls into sexual servitude, and whether Japanese actions in the 1930s and 1940s amounted to aggression. Abe deftly stonewalled the questions, saying he would "leave to historians" what happened to the Korean women, and refusing to acknowledge the wars of Imperial Japan as "aggression". 
It is in this context that Premier Li made his appeal to the sacred heritage of World War II. Statements from Japanese leaders regarding the historical realities of the war have outraged the victims of war crimes. Appealing to the Potsdam Declaration is a move meant to solidify Chinese claims to the disputed islands from both a legal perspective, and in terms of the court of international public opinion.
The Legacy of War
The current row between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands may be the most dangerous great power standoff since the end of the Cold War. First, the dispute is largely shaped by the legacy of Japanese imperialism. One could imagine the dangers of a modern territorial row between Germany and Russia - especially if senior German politicians were downplaying the Nazi aggression against the Soviet Union that led to the deaths of some 20 million of Russian citizens.
If anything, the dispute between Beijing and Tokyo is even more combustible than a hypothetical contemporary standoff between Germany and Russia. China views itself as a victim, at the very same time that Chinese power is rapidly expanding. China's gross domestic product overtook Japan's just three years ago, and China is set to surpass the economic output of the United State's in another three years. A victim mentality coupled with rapidly increasing economic and military capabilities and very legitimate historical grievances could be a volatile combination in any country. Meanwhile, the elements of true fascism - deep economic malaise, territorial disputes with neighbors, and a yearning for past glory - are coalescing in Japan.
Throw in Washington's "pivot to Asia" and the stage is set for a confrontation of potentially devastating proportions. Although neither side in the East China Sea dispute actually seeks armed conflict, both Beijing and Tokyo are constrained by their domestic political situations into taking an uncompromising stance.
The most important arena in which China can counter Washington and Tokyo's regional alliance is in the realm of Asian public opinion. While some regional actors fear a rising China, this fear is largely outweighed by both the temptation of increasing trade ties with Beijing, and historical anger over Japan's wartime crimes.
Indeed, Chan Heng Chee, a former ambassador of Singapore to the United States, warned quite bluntly on the occasion of her retirement: "I think if the United States re-engages Asia to contain China it won't work because countries in Asia won't sign on to containment. We don't want another Cold War. The United States should not ask Asian countries to choose. You may not like the results if you ask countries to choose." 
As the standoff deepens in the East China Sea, Asian countries may have to choose between a powerful China and a militarized American-Japanese alliance. Premier Li's remarks in Germany are meant to appeal to China's neighbors, and the wider world, not to forget the legacy of World War II. Fear of a powerful China may easily be offset by greed for economic opportunities, and anger over Japan's past aggression and current obstructionism.