SINOGRAPH Faded war wounds still raw in
Asia By Francesco Sisci
In analyzing how the legacy of World War
II and the Cold War impacts on European and Asians
countries today, it is only fair for this author,
as an Italian, to start with Italy. The country
was the third and weakest member of the Axis
nations defeated in World War II, yet it emerged
from the conflict still claiming it had won at
least half of it.
In 1943, half of the
country switched sides, allying with the Americans
and organizing partisan guerrillas. The myth was
that these forces contributed to the total victory
against Hitler; the reality is that Italy felt -
and still feels - weak on both sides of history.
We were weak as allies of the Germans (we
contributed to their defeat) and weak as allies of
the Americans (we didn't contribute significantly
to their victory).
Without a backbone,
Italy still feels like a mushy entity willing to
sell itself to the most
threatening party. Italy has thus given up on
foreign policy, deferring first to the Americans,
then the Europeans, and eventually to both.
Germany is different. It emerged from the
war thinking it had wronged the world and itself.
Later, it stood by the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization allies, consistently refusing to
embark on military ventures following the end of
the Cold War. It was very cautious over the Iraq
conflict in 2003, refused to go into Libya in
2011. It had to be forced to intervene in Europe
over the euro crisis, perhaps scared that its past
ambitions would lead it to again mull gobbling up
Japan seems to be a
different story, but mainly because of its
different regional context.
In Europe, the
Cold War ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin
Wall and the ensuing collapse of the USSR. In
Asia, communism has taken a different route.
In the 1970s, China allied with America
against the Soviets, and a decade later it
introduced market reforms, that is, it opened the
floodgates to forbidden capitalism. This path was
to be followed by Vietnam, which had been forsaken
by the Soviets in the 1990s. The third pillar of
communism in Asia, the one that kindled the Cold
War in 1950, North Korea, went to the other
extreme, sticking to its old socialist guns and
isolating itself from everybody, both its old
masters and allies (China and Russia) and its old
enemies (Japan and the US).
reunification of the two Germanies in 1990, Cold
War legacies were erased in Europe, but in Asia
they still exist. Korea is still divided, and more
importantly, capitalist Taiwan has not taken over
"red" China and is unlikely to do so - although
the capitalist mentality has established a firm
foothold in Beijing.
With time, in Asia
geopolitical and historical concerns have become
more important than ideological divides or ties.
Vietnam, which fought a decade-long war against
America, recently decided to embrace the US, its
former enemy, for fear of an even older enemy,
China, which is still its ideological brother.
Meanwhile, capitalist South Korea, a bulwark of
anti-communism that was saved by Washington from a
North Korean takeover in the 1950s, balks at the
idea of joining hands with capitalist Japan, its
hated ex-colonial master, against "communist"
In Asia, the Cold War's legacy
slides into the ancient, unresolved history of the
region. Whereas in Europe, the rivalry between
Germany, France, and the UK, which created three
centuries of wars, has disappeared, in Asia the
World War II legacies are still visible on the
Japan, defeated in World
War II, still holds areas like the Takeshima
(known in Korea as the Dokdo) Islands - and the
Senkaku (known in China as the Diaoyu) Islands,
which are also claimed by the winning powers,
Korea and China. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands
dispute is a legacy of this history, as the US
assigned them to Japan after World War II.
Yes, both countries still face unresolved
Cold War issues, so their entitlements can be
regarded as weaker. But Japan also has unresolved
disputes with Russia, which declared war rights at
the end of World War II and occupied some northern
islands that are still claimed by Tokyo, including
the Kuril Islands. Moscow was wrong, Tokyo felt,
to attack when the country was already down on its
knees, and Washington knows that in a way Japan
might also have contributed to the Allies' World
War II victory.
If in 1941 Tokyo had
attacked the USSR from the east while Berlin had
attacked it from the west, Moscow might have
fallen, and the war could have taken an entirely
Japan feels it was
squarely defeated by America once in 1945 and
again in the late 1980s, that time in economic
competition. But Japan also feels it won
militarily and economically over the other Asian
states in 1945 and even later, as its economy
boomed until the 1980s.
Even after that,
Tokyo carried on helping many countries in the
region economically. Washington, for its own
reasons, forced Japan to yield to other Asian
states at certain times. But without America's
intervention in World War II, Japan might be now
occupying all of China, and Japan could possibly,
like the Manchu three-and-half centuries earlier,
be about to Sinicize itself, conquered by the
pervasive and invasive Chinese traditional
Japanese might now be a smaller
language, and Chinese might possibly not have gone
through the massive process of simplification and
Westernization that occurred after the communist
This didn't happen, but
something else occurred. World War II latecomers
the Soviets not only occupied a few islands in
northern Japan, but more importantly, descended
into Japanese-occupied Manchuria, where formerly
weak, starving Chinese communists were regrouping.
Here, the Soviets armed and supported the Chinese
communists in going on to defeat the Chinese
nationalists, sustained by the Americans, who had
won the war in Asia but stayed aloof in its
Chinese civil aftermath.
Soviet support for the Chinese communists and the
US aloofness in Chinese affairs, Mao Zedong might
have never won the civil war and might have
remained a tiny footnote in Chinese history.
On the western front, the USSR did defeat
the Germans and liberate Eastern Europe from
Nazi's domination. Moscow's contribution in Asia
was never that clear or that great.
are all flights of imagination to be sure, but
they set the real stage for the present dramas
over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and influence in
South China Sea. In reality, the Cold War has not
ended in the region, and the outcome of World War
II was never clearly set and defined.
all of this, many things are open to debate and
interpretation, but few points are clear:
The Americans are the only clear winners of
World War II in the region.
Japan was defeated only by Americans; nobody
else can claim a clear victory.
America, for its own strategic reasons (the
oncoming Cold War), did not "de-Japanize" Japan as
it "de-Germanized" Germany after the war.
The Chinese and others contributed by stopping
troops - but to some extent so did Japan by not
China was helped by America twice, against
Japan during World War II and against Russia in
the 1970s. Without China, America would have had a
harder time; but without America, China would have
been brought to its knees twice.
Japan helped Asia and China after World War
II, and China's growth has helped Asian
Yet there are other elements
complicating the picture. Unlike in Europe, where
America has not been defeated, Washington has been
scarred in Asia. The US did not completely defeat
the Chinese in Korea in the 1950s, and it lost the
Vietnam War. In the latter, a political adjustment
with the Chinese evened out the end result.
These facts provide context for another
question. China, among others, does not openly
recognize some of the above facts, and its growth
is scaring everybody else as it occurs on a
mountain of unresolved regional issues, wounds,
and scars. China's present and future peaceful
development requires acknowledging these facts in
order to clear the air in the face of many
possible misunderstandings concerning China's
growing ambitions and chest-thumping at home and
These mutual clarifications will
be not sufficient to solve the Senkaku/Diaoyu
Islands issue, but could create a better climate
to face the issues with cooler heads.
in China think the US is pulling the strings in a
complicated plot to thwart Beijing's growth - and
some in America and in the region may agree with
that. But some people in China may support this
American plan, as they see in it an opportunity to
defeat the present leadership and reopen the
opportunities for the faction that had supported
neo-Maoist Bo Xilai, toppled last year following a
huge scandal in Chongqing.
For all of
them, reading the past is just an excuse to
execute plans in the future. Yet, even if it is,
excuses in politics and in everyday life are very
important to move the undecided mind. We shall
then see if in and out of China people will choose
to set the historical record on a straighter
course or brush over the past and concentrate on
the current pushing and shoving.
as animal behavior constantly proves, pushing is
easier than thinking, and war planners worldwide
prepare for extreme contingencies, not normal
occurrences. These few elements should lead us to
believe that only the worst will happen around the
However, the urge
for survival and evolution is also very strong,
and in this case it is about the mutual benefits
of greater integration of China into the world,
something that Beijing has seen very clearly in
Then there are also
reasons to believe that China, the greatest
beneficiary of its own peaceful evolution, will
choose to stray from the warpath, ignore
provocations, and acknowledge a history that opens
a brighter future for it and all its neighbors in
the Pacific rim.
is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24
Ore and can be reached at [email protected]