Written by Gilbert Rozman.
The year 2015 serves in China to showcase Japan’s alleged transgressions from the postwar order and in Russia to accuse the West of violating that order through the spread of the EU and NATO to the east, denying Russia its legitimate sphere of influence. As the world draws closer to the commemorative events recognizing the historical significance of the 70th anniversary of World War II, it is time to assess what makes them so significant for the national identities of China and Russia.
Ideologically, 1945 and the following years associated with the start of the Cold War are seen as vindicating the choice of communism in the global struggle against the forces of imperialism. As 1917 faded as an historical turning point in both Moscow and Beijing, more weight was attached to the victory achieved against not only the Nazis and the Japanese militarists, but also against the West after a long period of imposing its will and culture. The specific battlefronts of our times—the East China and South China seas for China and Ukraine for Russia—are but manifestations of the completion or maintenance of the victories won seven decades ago. Given the de-emphasis on class struggle in recent decades, 1945 serves to highlight national identity with room to link Sinocentrism or Russocentrism to pride in communism. While Putin does not champion communism per se, he validates its positive impact. The focus on 1945 serves to rehabilitate Stalin when class struggle can be obscured and to boost Mao’s image as leftist themes of his era are again gaining credence.
The world order introduced in 1945 and shortly afterwards serves much better than the end of the Cold War in 1989-91 to bolster the historical identity desired by Putin and Xi. Insisting on the defense of that order—against the West’s intrusions into the sphere of Moscow’s authority or Japan’s pretensions–, officials argue that their state is a status quo power. This stands as a defense against charges of aggression as both states strive to forge a new world order to become a turning point in world history. Taking the spotlight off the history of communism and putting it on long-criticized imperialism and its alleged revival, leaders have put history at the center of identity.
Another way of shifting the spotlight is to pose a conflict of civilizations, insisting that the leadership of one’s country is the last bastion of defense against onslaughts from Western civilization. Putin describes the long admired West as decadent and Russia as the true defender of religion and traditional values. Xi follows the tried and tested path of attributing an “economic miracle” to civilizational virtues. Even if the domestic case for superiority does not look compelling at a time Xi is targeting endemic corruption and Putin is presiding over a failed energy state. The negative case against Western threats to one’s civilization is left as the principal argument.
The threat to Russia and China is perceived above all as de-legitimation of their way of controlling the population that comes with “universal values” and, worst of all, “color revolutions.” To defend against these dangers, they must be discredited as a threat not to a particular political leadership, but to the viability of the nation and the wellbeing of its citizens. This alternative has to be demonized as destruction of the nation, not its empowerment. When the nation was truly endangered during the 1940s, the communist party is credited with saving it and leaving behind a structure to maintain its security and identity. Thus, recalling this achievement and the revival of the danger of dismemberment or isolation is valuable in defining today’s battles.
Sino-Russian national interests do not coincide very well on the Korean Peninsula and in Central Asia. There is little prospect of trust between the two countries, given the intensity of each one’s determination to forge an exclusive type of regionalism in support of its own centrality and identity. Yet, their preoccupation with the national identity gap with the United States and its allies and partners and with carving out a sphere in opposition to these perceived threats not only results in shared mutual interests, it also leads to overlapping national identities on the international arena. With intensified crackdowns on domestic doubters and rhetoric demonizing the West, China and Russia regard each other as closer than at any time since the 1950s.
Putin has made Ukraine and Xi has made Japan the test case for reinterpreting the meaning of 1945. They agree, in principle, on challenging the West by prioritizing 1945 over 1989, as if the Cold War had never ended, but Xi is not eager for Russia to reestablish the Soviet sphere (in Ukraine and, even more, in Central Asia) and Putin remains solicitous of Abe’s overtures. On May 9 with Kim Jong-un at his side Putin will take the lead in interpreting the legacy of WWII, but Xi’s hesitation about a new cold war, as seen in the positive spin put on his November summit with Obama, has cast doubt on whether he will go nearly as far as Putin in assessing the legacy of the postwar regime. Should Putin endorse Xi’s verdict on Japan as the chief transgressor in trying to overturn the existing order, he might expect more reciprocity. Even in the absence of agreement on priorities, the overall consensus on 1945, steeped in support for the communist bloc’s rejection of a US-led world order supportive of universal values, suffices to keep China and Russia joining together on the history issue. The year 2015 promises to solidify their sense of shared national identity in a global context. Abe’s determination to revise the verdict on Japan and the likelihood that he cannot continue to woo Putin at a time of increasing sanctions increase the prospects that Putin will join Xi in vilifying Japan, raising their level of solidarity.