Old Wars Play Pivotal Role in Battle for Regional Supremacy

By Rowan Callick

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.

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