In a recent article on relations between China and India by the historian Srinath Raghavan, I was struck by the following line: “Not since the late 19th century has infrastructure been so prominent an issue in great power relations.” Raghavan had in mind the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China’s new alternative to the Asian Development Bank, which will be used to fund projects such as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt. China presents them as futuristic projects that exemplify a “win-win” logic in international relations. But perhaps, as Raghavan’s reference to the late nineteenth century suggests, they are more old-fashioned and zero-sum than China’s liberal rhetoric suggests. In particular, the Silk Road Economic Belt – which will run from China through Central Asia to Europe – reminds me of nothing so much as the Berlin-Baghdad railway.
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.