Western policymakers must take China’s understanding of the Second World War seriously in order to bolster dialogue amid escalating geopolitical tensions, a historian has urged.
Professor Michael Neiberg, Chair of War Studies at the US Army War College, was speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival in England, where he suggested that China’s view of its dual roles as a major victor and victim in the conflict had gone unacknowledged.
At an event discussing the Second World War in the Pacific, Neiberg spoke about a Western outlook on the conflict in China that focused on figures such as US General Joseph Stillwell and aviator Claire Lee Chennault and did not correspond at all to Chinese perceptions or preoccupations.
He suggested that historical sources provided a salutary reminder that nationalist China under Chiang Kai-shek was considered a critical American and British ally. As part of this alliance, China was expected to tie down as much of the Japanese army as possible. It did so, with around a million Japanese soldiers in China at the time of Japan’s surrender in September 1945.
Neiberg said: “I don’t need to tell you how different the war would have looked if they could have been deployed to India or the Pacific Islands.”
He added: “China understands itself, and we need to understand China — for all the complications, confusion and ambiguity — as having been a member of the victorious alliance. And for China, the central event in this is the Cairo Conference of 1943, because it was the only one of the major conferences at which China was represented.”
Crucially, China’s contribution came at a terrible cost, with a total civilian and military death toll of about 20 million between Japan’s full-scale invasion of China in 1937 and its defeat in 1945. Chinese people were also the victims of numerous Japanese war crimes and atrocities. “China not unreasonably wants this suffering recognised and acknowledged when the West talks about the Second World War,” Neiberg said.
“China served, in their minds, their World War Two experience both as part of the victorious coalition and as a people that is due and owed something by the sacrifices that its people made. This vision can be used to undergird and support China’s vision of itself as a stabilising force in East Asia, however much the people that I work for may disagree with that interpretation.”
A complicating factor, he said, was that it was Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist China that was at Cairo, and not Mao Zedong, whose Communists overthrew Chiang’s regime in the late 1940s.
“How do you square that circle? Well, it can be done. The People’s Republic of China argues that, just as an inherited the UN Security Council vote from Chiang Kai-shek’s China, so too should it inherit the mantle of one of the great victors of the great alliance — the four policemen, as Franklin Roosevelt envisioned it, patrolling the world and keeping the peace.”
In this view, Neiberg said, the West had no right to exclude China from its rightful place in what US Secretary of State Dean Acheson described as the postwar “New World Order”.
Fears around aggressive Chinese expansionism have grown in recent years, exacerbated by Chinese military exercises around Taiwan. This has led to strategic moves such as the formation of the AUKUS trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and US. Asked whether there was a lesson for the West as it positions itself to counter the perceived threat from China, Neiberg suggested that scrutiny of history could bring opportunities for productive communication.
“In the United States, there is a lot of panic about what China’s growth means. If you want to get a book published, all you have to do is say that we’re going to be number two against China in soybean production or pencil production . . . Speaking as a historian, I think we need to understand that other societies have not had an historical experience that we’ve had. And we need to also understand that there is a blurred line between history and memory. That is to say, all societies, including our own, reconstruct their history, through the prism of what they believe in the present.
“So I would be much more comfortable if American analysts on China were looking at that history, looking at what it means to China — both objectively and the way that China sees it — and looking for opportunities that might create a space for dialogue, rather than constantly looking for spaces for competition.”
“It is a concept we teach at the Army War College called cultural empathy, strategic empathy — making sure that we’re not dismissing the way that others see things, even if we disagree with them.
Nevertheless, he added: “That is not to excuse anything that China has done on the world stage. That is not to say that China gets a free pass because of the numbers [of Second World War casualties] I showed you on the chart. It is to say that I don’t think our policymakers will get very far by looking at the numbers of microchip production or soybean production. I think they’re going to get where they’re going to get by looking at the history and the memory of Chinese history.”
Neiberg stressed at the event that he was sharing his own views as a historian and not representing his US government employers.