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To understand China's foreign policy, look to World War II



9 April 2013

First published in ABC's The Drum Opinion.

To understand China's foreign policy, we need to look back to its neglected contribution during World War II under Chiang Kai-shek, writes Rana Mitter.

The world is now looking to Beijing to broker the crisis in North Korea. China is in a unique position to do that: it is the only non-Western nation among the five who sit permanently on the UN Security Council.

But few remember that the Chinese leader who brought China to the heart of global politics was not Chairman Mao, but the faded and reviled figure of Chiang Kai-shek, his Nationalist predecessor.

If Chiang is remembered at all, it is as a corrupt and incompetent leader whose greed led the Americans to nickname him "Cash-my-Check". Yet in recent years, Chiang's status in the People's Republic, the state founded by his deadly enemy Mao, has risen as his homeland acknowledges his contribution to the Allied effort in World War II.

It is also clear that to understand the motivations behind China's international behaviour today, the West needs to know more about the debt it owes China for its wartime efforts.

Australia has long understood the way that its part in the Allied war effort has not been sufficiently understood in North America or Europe. The same is true of China.

When fighting broke out in July 1937 between Japanese and Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing, it proved to be the spark leading to all-out war between the two nations and, after Pearl Harbour, a global conflict.

In 1945, at the end of the war, some 14 million or more Chinese had been killed, some 80 to 100 million had become refugees, and the hesitant modernisation that had been taking place under Chiang's Nationalist government had been destroyed.

The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 led to terrible atrocities being committed, most famously the "Rape of Nanking" that saw numerous civilians slaughtered in the occupation of the former capital city, but also events such as the terror bombing of the temporary wartime capital at Chongqing (Chungking), where some 4,000 people were killed in two days of constant air-raids on May 3-4, 1939.

The war was a tragedy for China. China's best troops had been killed and its remaining armies were badly fed and barely trained. Across the country, famine and illness ran rife. Yet the conflict also brought China a new international status.

Some half a million Japanese troops had been kept pinned down on the Chinese mainland by the refusal of the Nationalist and Communist armies to lay down their arms and surrender. As a result, Chiang Kai-shek's China was able finally to shake off the "unequal treaties" that had bound it in a near-colonial relationship with the West since the Opium Wars of the 1840s.

Now China was invited to the top table of global diplomacy, the only non-Western country to sit permanently in the new UN Security Council.

However, Nationalist China's days were numbered. In the brutal civil war against Mao's Communists, they lost badly and in 1949, the People's Republic was declared. China was now isolated from the West and its wartime contribution was swiftly forgotten by the rest of the world.

Yet the legacy of that first Chinese rise in status in 1945 remains relevant today. While China's economic power has given it greater diplomatic clout in recent years, its long isolation means that its foreign policy has been marked by a combination of hesitance and clumsiness.

On North Korea, China has repeatedly called for calm but showed little signs of being able to control its neighbour. And in the East and South China Seas, it has found it harder to convince Japan or the ASEAN countries that it has the capacity to act as a flexible and subtle diplomatic partner.

At least part of that clumsiness comes from the end of World War II when China should have been brought into the world community.

A greater understanding of China's World War II experience would be good both for China and for the West. For China, it would mean that a long-unhealed wound would at last be acknowledged. Far from being a marginal actor in a global conflict, China's contribution helped to bring about ultimate Allied victory, and at a terrible cost to the Chinese people.

But the post-war settlement also provides a lesson for China, and it is not an easy one. The Allied victory meant not a free pass for the winners in global society, but rather new responsibilities.

After 1945, the US had to provide global leadership in which American interests sometimes had to be sacrificed for the greater good. China should be given credit for its contribution to the Allied victory, but it will also need to shoulder the responsibilities of being a great power in the Pacific in the present day.

Beijing's leaders today live in an Asia that for all its flaws is more peaceful and prosperous than the one that Chiang Kai-shek knew. They should take advantage of the opportunities that he never had to create a consensual, stable new order, even if that means uncomfortable new realities such as a stable transition on their border away from the regime of their old ally in North Korea.