Memory and security in Asia

Since taking part in a study trip to Tokyo (which prompted me to write another post on Japan and the concept of “civilian power”) over the summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of collective memory in international relations in Asia. In Tokyo, where we spent a week in discussions with policymakers and analysts from all over Asia, we talked a lot about history and the role it plays in tensions between Asian countries. In particular, there is an ongoing dispute between China and Japan over the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and the Nanking massacre in 1937. This is particularly important because it plays into the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu. There are also acrimonious disputes between Japan and Korea over issues such as the “comfort women” the Japanese forced into sexual slavery during World War II.

It seems to me that, in trying to understand the relationship between the past and present, the concept of collective memory is particularly useful. The concept was first developed by the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs in 1925 in his book On collective memory, which has since become one of the most important texts in memory studies. According to Halbwachs, memory is not simply given but actively constructed. Thus collective memory is always selective memory, which can be manipulated on the basis of the needs of the present. In this “presentist” view, the past is “useable”. This does not mean trauma is not real, but implies that history is also used and abused. Thus there is always a complicated two-way relationship between past and present: the past informs the present, but is also instrumentalised by it.

What the concept of collective memory means when applied to foreign policy is that while the past can act as a kind of constraint, it can also be mobilised by states in the pursuit of interests – as it seems to be in the context of the unresolved territorial disputes between various Asian countries. But if the past and present interact in this complex way, causality becomes ever harder to establish. Is foreign policy being driven by perceptions of the past? Or are policymakers using those perceptions in order to pursue other economic or strategic interests? Each case is complex. But it strikes me that this relationship between past and present works differently in China than elsewhere in Asia. In particular, it seems to me there are two reasons why a “presentist” view of memory is of particular in helping us understand Chinese foreign policy.

First, as an authoritarian state, China needs to use memory for legitimacy in a different way than democracies. The party-state seems to have begun to use history in the 1980s after it abandoned Communist ideology, the party’s previous source of legitimacy, and opened up the economy, especially to Japan – for example, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall was opened in 1985. Since Tiananmen in 1989, the party seems to have intensified this instrumentalisation of memory – for example in 1991 it introduced “patriotic education” based on a nationalist reading of history. According to the historian Zheng Wang, the party decided “to use nationalism and patriotic education in order to strengthen [its] legitimacy as the ruling party and primary source of social cohesion”.

Second, and perhaps even more important, China is unique in that it apparently seeks regional hegemony. In this context, it has territorial claims that go far beyond the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – the piece of international law that covers maritime disputes. In fact, China claims the area enclosed by the “nine-dash line” – in effect the entire South China Sea – and the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea (some in China even claim Okinawa!). China wants these territories for strategic and economic reasons – in other words because of hard interests. But since international law does not sustain these claims, the only basis for them is history. Thus China has a particular geopolitical need to instrumentalise memory that sets it apart from other countries in Asia – both democracies and other authoritarian states.


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