Last Monday, U.S. and Chinese naval ships met in a joint exercise at that most historically freighted of marine destinations, Pearl Harbor. In the first such visit to U.S. waters since 2006, three Chinese ships took part in a simulated search-and-rescue mission alongside American warships. The stated aim of the exercise was to foster better understanding between the two militaries, a welcome gesture when military and diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing sometimes seems to move from antagonism to warmth and back again with alarming speed. It was only on Aug. 29 that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that he was concerned about Chinese military actions in the South China Sea, which "increase the risk of confrontation, undermine regional stability and dim the prospects for diplomacy."
The uneven relationship between the U.S. and Chinese militaries is no surprise in an era when China's influence is rising. However, there is an increasing disparity in the way that the two sides view each other's actions. American interests are more and more tied to an unstated "containment" of China's presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet the Pearl Harbor exercise has a historical aptness for a different reason: In China, there is a growing sense that American actions are tied to an unjust regional settlement that dates from the end of World War II.
After a significant Chinese contribution to the Allied victory in Asia, many in China argue, the United States has failed to recognize an unpaid debt. And just as America sought to contain China taking its rightful place in the world in the 1940s, so it seeks to do so again. At the start of the joint exercise, Rear Adm. Rick Williams, commander of Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific, declared to his Chinese visitors, "We are linked with you together in history, and we will be linked together in the future." For China, which is rediscovering its historical relationship with the United States, Williams's statement rings true, but in ways that may not be comfortable for America ears.
For years, it has been well-known that Chinese and American military priorities clashed in wartime China. The conflict was crystallized in the confrontation between China's leader Chiang Kai-shek and the American chief of staff sent to China after Pearl Harbor, Gen. Joseph Stilwell, whose brusque manner led to his nickname "Vinegar Joe." Stilwell's diaries showed his contempt for Chiang, whom he nicknamed "the Peanut." Disgusted by the corruption endemic in the wartime capital of Chongqing and the poor state of the Chinese armies, Stilwell launched himself on a collision course with Chiang. Eventually, in 1944, the Chinese leader demanded that Roosevelt recall Stilwell. This moment signaled a fundamental breakdown between the Americans and the Chinese. The view of Chiang as a corrupt and incompetent fool became widespread in a postwar America: Chiang's nickname had become "Cash-my-Check."
Yet in recent years, this version of events has been subject to serious historical revisionism in China and the West. There has been a wider recognition that China went to war with Japan in hugely difficult circumstances and with little foreign support. The early 20th century saw a growing confrontation between rising nationalism in China and an ever-more aggressive Japanese imperialism, with the occupation of Manchuria in 1931 the clear signal that Tokyo had aggressive designs on China. On July 7, 1937, fighting broke out between Japanese and Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing, and within weeks, China and Japan were locked in full-scale conflict. Over the next eight years, some 14 million Chinese would be killed, some 80 to 100 million would become refugees, and the flawed but real modernization of roads, railways, and industry that had been under way in the 1920s and 1930s would be utterly destroyed.
Today, many Westerners know little or nothing about China's role in the war. Yet China was fighting Japan two years before Britain and France went to war with Germany, and four years before Pearl Harbor. By holding down more than half a million Japanese troops, China made a significant contribution to the overall Allied strategy. By early 1941, the Nationalists and their uneasy Communist allies were the only major forces opposing the Japanese in East Asia. If they had surrendered then -- or even earlier, in 1938 -- China would have become a Japanese colony, and Tokyo could have moved much earlier against Southeast Asia or even British India, making Allied victory in the Pacific far more difficult.