Old Wars Play Pivotal Role in Battle for Regional Supremacy

Old Wars Play Pivotal Role in Battle for Regional Supremacy
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This week, China is in celebratory mood - anticipating the anniversary on Friday of the start of the First Sino-Japanese War.

If you didn't know, you'd think China had won. In fact, by the following April the war ended in ignominious defeat.

As Australians should understand, with the big Gallipoli anniversary coming up, and the British too with their pride over Dunkirk, it's all about how you use history.

For China, today in a resurgent mood, the anniversary serves several useful purposes.

It underlines that it was not so much "China" that lost, as the incompetent, feudal Manchus, who were at their weakest. This defeat helped to propel the end of the dynasty 16 years later - well before the Russian Tsar was overthrown - and to foster the rise of both "progressive" elements that later fused in the communist party, and Han Chinese nationalism.

It highlights the nefarious role of Japan as a long-established enemy, while at the same time demonstrating the importance of radical economic reform that Japan's Meiji dynasty had backed staunchly, handing the country a crucial edge in modern military-industrial capacity.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is driving his own ambitious reform program, for which he is still seeking an unambiguous buy-in from his own elite.

And the anniversary provides a platform to demonstrate, though relentlessly publicised live-fire manoeuvres, through patriotic rhetoric and through constantly reasserted sovereignty over contentious islands and waters off Asia, that China today is not for taming.

It acts as a reminder that the party has created the region's most resilient, even dominant, power - with the People's Liberation Army pushed to the frontlines of promoting "the Chinese dream", Xi's catchphrase.

In such ways, old wars can be enlisted to help new leaders pursue their ambitious agendas.

A naval political commissar said a North Sea Fleet commemoration "should stir soldiers' patriotism by reminding them of past humiliations".

This conflict, usually known in China as the war of Jiawu, was chiefly fought over the Korean peninsula, where Japan coveted the coal and iron ore deposits it lacked, and whose still-closeted rulers left it languishing economically.

The regionally organised Chinese forces were reasonably well equipped, including the Dingyuan, a battleship built in Germany. But the Japanese acted with aggressive intent.

On July 23, 1894, their troops entered Seoul and seized Korean King Gojong, establishing a pro-Japan government. Two days later the first sea battle began, and soon the engagements spread to land forces, with 500 Chinese killed in their first skirmish. War was officially declared on August 1.

On September 17, Japanese warships destroyed eight of the 10 vessels in China's Beiyang Fleet, in the Battle of the Yalu River. The isolated Dingyuan was later scuttled.

In the Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the war, China ceded Taiwan and the Penghu Islands to Japan "in perpetuity". Tokyo was to rule Taiwan until the end of World War II, and Chinese influence over Korea ended.

Now the tide has turned, and a visit by Xi to Seoul this month underlined how warm the China-Korea relationship is becoming, as their present leaders appear to share a mutual distaste for North Korea and a dislike of Japan.

Six months ago, to Japanese protests, China opened a memorial hall in Harbin railway station in tribute to a Korean, Ahn Jung-geun, who assassinated there the Japanese governor-general of Korea in 1909.

A four-part TV documentary series on the war, co-produced by the Central New Film Group and the PLA National Defence University, is now being screened.

About 20,000 troops are participating in Huoli 2014, a land-based exercise, and the Civil Aviation Administration has warned of "widespread delays" for flights to and from Shanghai and other cities from Qingdao down to Nanjing, due to air combat exercises.

Beihang University professor and naval expert Liu Janping says these exercises are more combat-oriented, last longer, and require closer cross-unit co-operation, at the express request of Xi, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission.

A China Central TV report noted this war marked China's first military defeat to Japan.

It quoted Li Zhanteng, who works as a researcher at a centre devoted to the defeat, as saying that "history provides solid proof that the war was the root of Japan's militaristic strategy of invading China and other parts of Asia" - a strategy which, Chinese officials have been hinting recently, has been revived under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The report said it was not the Chinese forces but "the corruption and fatuity" of the Qing dynasty that were to blame for the defeat: "This conclusion has obvious modern-day applications, because China's leadership is now emphasising both reform and a new focus on the country's military build-up."

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