Beijing suspicious of Japan's war crime apology

China sees a conspiracy to gain Seoul's favour, and South Koreans speculate that the gesture is not much more than geopolitical posturing.

South Koreans who were sex slaves for the Japanese army during World War II rally in Seoul yesterday.
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BEIJING // It was to be a gesture of good will aimed at healing the wounds of a brutal colonial past. Instead, Japan's apology to South Korea this week has raised suspicion in China over the motives for the gesture and scepticism among Koreans over its sincerity.

The Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, said sorry to South Korea for its colonisation of the Korean Peninsula against the will of the Korean people 100 years ago. Expressing "deep remorse", Mr Kan offered a "heartfelt apology" for the 36 years of colonisation, which ended with Japan's surrender in the Second World War on August 15, 1945. Chinese media gave the news plenty of attention. While expressing anger that Japan had chosen to ignore its colonial history in China, newspapers speculated that Japan had an ulterior motive.

That motive, they claimed, was that Japan was trying to counter China's rise by recruiting South Korea on its side, in a greater scheme masterminded by the US. "In the 1990s, the US needed a unified Europe to counter the rise of Russia. Recently, the US has been trying to split Asia apart, to check China's development," the analyst Liu Zhiqin wrote in yesterday's Global Times, the international arm of the official People's Daily.

The same newspaper on Wednesday said on its full front page that "the timing of Japan's apology came at a sensitive time". "China and South Korea used to be allies in the struggle against Japan's invasion history. Now, will the détente between South Korea and Japan be the beginning of Japan's effort to improve its relations with other Asian countries or will it serve as a turning point for Japan, together with South Korea, to counter China?"

Relations between the US and China have slumped in recent months over Beijing's refusal to join the international community in condemning North Korea after it was accused of torpedoeing a South Korean navy ship in March. Whether the US was behind the apology or not, analysts certainly believe the gesture was aimed at strengthening ties between South Korea and Japan, both of which are deeply concerned about confrontation with North Korea, China's strong ally.

"Japan potentially hopes that South Korea and Japan can form a common strategy to compete with China in the future," said Hajime Izumi, a professor of international relations at Japan's University of Shizuoka. After the apology, Mr Kan phoned South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to convey the message in a 20-minute conversation. South Korea's presidential office said Mr Kan also invited Mr Lee to visit Japan.

While the South Korean government readily accepted Japan's apology, the South Korean public felt the gesture was not enough. "Japan's apology was more sincere than before. But it's not yet at the level we can wholeheartedly embrace," said Choi Woon-do, a researcher with the Northeast Asian History Foundation, a South Korean government-affiliated institute established in 2006 to examine disputes with neighbouring countries.

"Japan this time acknowledged that the annexation was done against Koreans' will. But importantly, it didn't admit the illegality of doing so," he said. Asian countries victimised by Japan during the Second World War often compare the country with Germany. "In Germany's case, there was domestic consensus to admit its wrongdoing. But Japan didn't have a domestic consensus among themselves,:" Mr Choi said.

"This creates a credibility problem of Japan's apology." Liu Jiangyong, a professor of Japanese politics at Tsinghua University in Beijing, agreed. "Kozumi's [apology] lacked sincerity. Some people in Japan oppose the apology. Different Japanese leaders have different historical views. That would also influence the relationship Japan has with its neighbours," he said. "Germany and Japan are completely different," said Mr Izumi. "Germany's apology was very easier to do ? one group [the Nazis] took the responsibility. But for Japan, all the Japanese have to take responsibility for its colonial and World War Two wrongdoings."

Most analysts agree that the reason Japan's apology drew some suspicion in China and scepticism in South Korea lies in the fundamental lack of trust among these Asian neighbours, a lack of trust that has festered over the years. Here, their differing relationship with the US plays powerfully too. Japan's apology "was deliberately selective" and "Japan was using history as a tool for politics," said the Beijing News, a Chinese newspaper, on Wednesday.

"Apologising only to South Korea will have repercussions on the entire East Asian nerve," it said.