China said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was evading Japan’s “history of aggression” by comparing Sino-Japanese relations to those of the U.K. and Germany prior to World War I.
“There’s no need to make an issue of the U.K.-Germany relationship,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing yesterday. “Such remarks by Japanese leaders are to evade the history of aggression, to confuse the audience.”
Abe told a group of editors at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that Germany and the U.K. went to war despite their strong economic ties. He said Japan and China must do everything to avoid a similar fate. The Japanese government later confirmed the remarks.
China’s criticism of Abe adds to tensions between the countries at a time when China is flexing its military muscle in Asia, asserting claims to territory and resources. President Xi Jinping is expanding China’s navy, with the country’s first aircraft carrier carrying out sea trials and the South China Morning Post reporting it plans to build a fleet of four carriers by 2020. German Emperor Wilhelm II challenged British naval dominance in the run up to World War I even as the two countries maintained strong trade ties.
“The 1914 comparison has been taken with a pinch of salt, but at the same time tension is rising in East Asia, in the South China Sea and in the East China Sea,” said Alexander Neill, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. “China is modernizing at a pretty fast pace and has demonstrated it can produce highly sophisticated weapons.”
Japan under Abe has also increased military spending as he seeks to loosen restrictions on Japan’s Self-Defense Forces imposed by the country’s pacifist constitution.
Abe “absolutely” did not mean he thought Japan was headed for war with China, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo yesterday. He cited Abe’s call for dialog in a speech he separately delivered at Davos that was partly overshadowed by the comments on World War I.
The defense forces of Asia’s two largest economies have come into increased contact as the countries dispute the ownership of a chain of islands in the East China Sea. Protests broke out in China in late 2012 after the Japanese government bought some of the islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, from a private owner. Tensions escalated in November when China established an air defense identification zone in the area, demanding that civil and military aircraft present flight plans to its authorities.
The following month, Abe visited the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo, seen by nations such as China as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism. During the visit he put his hands together and “pledged to create a world where people would never again suffer the cruelty of war,” Abe said in Davos. He did not seek to hurt the feelings of China and South Korea, Abe said.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Abe’s intentions for the visit were clear, in remarks made in Montreux, Switzerland, that were posted yesterday on the ministry’s website.
“Prime Minister Abe has ignored all opposition from other countries and has insisted on visiting the Yasukuni shrine to pay homage to Class A war criminals,” Wang said, according to the statement. “His intentions are clear, he wants to reverse the verdict of aggression and beautify the war criminals.”
The two countries haven’t held a summit since Abe took office in December 2012, and China said Jan. 21 it would not consider a meeting at the Sochi Winter Olympics next month.
Abe’s comments on Europe before World War 1 reflected the need for Japan to acknowledge risks from the current tensions with China, according to Alessio Patalano, a lecturer at the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London.
“In the past, references to history on behalf of Japanese politicians opened the way for controversial analysis,” Patalano said. This time “the reference was well informed and relevant, acknowledged the importance of allowing the past to inform our understanding of the risks of the present, and suggested a course of action” focused on dialogue.
In his speech at Davos on Jan. 22, Abe warned that increased military spending in Asia threatens the region’s economic growth and called on countries to curb defense outlays.
“The dividend of growth in Asia must not be wasted on military expansion,” Abe said. “We must use it to invest in innovation and human capital, which will further boost growth in the region.”
China expanded military spending 10.7 percent to 740.6 billion yuan ($122 billion) in 2013 and Abe plans a second consecutive rise in Japan’s defense budget. China is already building its second aircraft carrier to be completed in 2018, the South China Morning Post reported Jan. 19, citing a regional Communist Party chief.
In December its first carrier, the Liaoning, returned from an initial training mission in the South China Sea, where China has been at odds with the Philippines over control of the Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground.
“Military budgets should be made completely transparent and there should be public disclosure in a form that can be verified,” Abe said in the speech. While he did not mention China directly, Japan and the U.S. have criticized a lack of transparency in China’s military outlays. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates Chinese military spending at 1,049 billion yuan for 2012, almost 50 percent more than China’s official figure.
Abe called for the creation of a mechanism for crisis management and a communication channel between armed forces to help build trust. “This can only be achieved through dialogue and the rule of law and not through force or coercion,” he said.
Japan and China have agreed in principle to set up a system to avoid unplanned marine clashes but it has never been implemented. Patrol boats from Japan and China have frequently tailed each other around the disputed areas of the East China Sea.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy urged Japan to reconcile with its neighbors in an interview published by the Asahi newspaper yesterday. Reiterating U.S. “disappointment” over Abe’s visit to the shrine and concern it could raise regional tensions, she told the paper that leaders who try to overcome history and create a peaceful future should be encouraged.