Asia for Asians? Worrying words that we’ve heard before

By Curtis S. Chin

New York City — Those were some of the words evoked in a small but powerful exhibition here on Manhattan’s Upper East Side marking the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II — at least from a U.S. perspective. But like the best of exhibits, the presentation of past events takes on new meaning in the context of an evolving world, and in this case, the growth in the economic and military assertiveness of mainland China. In touring the exhibition of old words and images, a very modern, troubling question comes to mind: Does “New China” equal “Old Japan”? Or more pointedly, does China risk becoming the Japan of some seven decades past, namely a rising nation that sparks conflict and then war under the guise of “Asia for Asians”? This comes particularly to mind when viewing an old Japanese wartime propaganda poster from the Philippines on display. The small poster shows parts of East and Southeast Asia, and reads in English: “December 8th. The third anniversary of Greater East Asia War to defend Asia for and by the Asiatics. Japan’s victory is the Philippines Triumph.”

December 8th being, of course, the date from Asia’s side of the dateline of Japan’s attack on U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

On display at the Grolier Club, a New York institution dedicated to the appreciation of books and prints, the poster is one of many items that can be viewed until August 2nd in “The Power of Words and Images in a World at War.” Drawn from the collection of the Museum of World War II in Boston, the exhibition focuses on the iconic posters, broadsides, books and periodicals that influenced millions in the course of the “last great worldwide conflict.”

In looking at the artifacts of past war, one cannot but help draw connections to conflicts now at hand.

Trouble continues to brew in the East China and South China seas, where China is seen, fairly or not, by many of its neighbors as a schoolyard bully, taking by force — one “salami slice” of territory at a time — what it could not through diplomacy. The stationing of a massive floating deep-water oil rig by China into waters also claimed by Vietnam was the latest flashpoint as tensions escalate. Riots flared in Vietnam against factories and other interests perceived as being linked to China, and video footage of what seems to be a massive Chinese ship ramming and sinking a much smaller Vietnamese fishing boat has hit the Internet.

The last few months, let alone years, are no model for a way forward when it comes to dispute resolution.

Cases in point: In November of last year, China unilaterally announced an expanded air defense zone encompassing airspace that overlapped with claims by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. And in the last few months, Chinese military planes have come dangerously close to those of the United States and Japan. China, Taiwan and Japan also all claim the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese.