World War II is also not over in Asia

All the controversy on the Russian celebration of the end of World War II has obscured the similarly problematic role of such events in Asia. Indeed, at a recent roundtable among think-tankers and government staffers, one participant candidly asked a simple question. “What will governments do when China’s official invitation letter to attend World War II celebrations in Beijing arrives?” Embarrassing silence ensued. On September 3, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) plans to host a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and, to use the Chinese phrasing, “victory in the World Anti-fascist War and the Chinese people’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression.”

There is nothing new about the Chinese communist party wanting to demonstrate its military strength in front of foreign leaders. Since the creation of the PRC in 1949, senior representatives of “friendly countries” have been in attendance at celebrations such as the 60th anniversary of the regime in October 2009. That event included a military parade with 10,000 troops and the display of many high-tech weapons held in Tiananmen Square, the precise place in which the pro-democracy movement was crushed in June 1989. This year, Western leaders feel both pressure to attend from the Chinese, and discomfort with an event that is clearly aimed at celebrating the country’s new international assertiveness.

This discomfort is particularly acute in Asia, where China wants to play a bigger role and where Japan sees China’s rise in a region it used to dominate economically as a threat. The territorial dispute in the East China Sea has particularly been a source of tension between the two Asian powers. China would like to use the 70th anniversary events to show off its military and diplomatic strengths. The September military parade will therefore be a challenge for many non-Asian government leaders invited to attend the celebrations. Only Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose own May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow will not be well-attended by Western leaders due to the Ukraine situation, has confirmed his presence in Beijing. Others are pondering about what to do and who to send to Beijing.

Most European leaders are pondering whether to go. The situation is somewhat similar to the announcement in March by the United Kingdom that it was to become the first Western nation to join the board of the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). With regards to the invitation to attend the September events, the China-friendly U.K. has been avoiding the question, as it faces a general election on May 7 (the new government will have to decide.) France is focused on making the Paris 2015 climate conference a success, and therefore follows its own agenda; and Germany does not want to alienate itself from the United States and Japan by attending alone a somewhat controversial event.

All Europeans are keen to expand economic and trade relationships with China, but they do not want to damage their relationships with Japan. They should indeed send a representative to Beijing but probably not their most senior leader in order to avoid interfering in an already complex regional situation in Asia. European governments should consult each other on this matter, and give a joint response to China. They should also consult with the United States to avoid another AIIB situation. The United States will wait for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Washington at the end of April—as well as his annual statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in August—to start thinking about who to send. Even more that Europe, it will seek to preserve both China’s and Japan’s pride at the same time. That will be a challenging diplomatic task.