History is rich in ironies and reversals of fortune, but lessons are rarely learned. The latest crisis between China and Japan over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands comes only days before the 70th anniversary of the Cairo Declaration during World War II. The declaration, issued on Dec 1, 1943, lays down the conditions set by Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom, Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States and Chiang Kai-shek of China for Japan's surrender.
For China, World War II did not start on Sept 1, 1939, or on Dec 7, 1941, with the surprise Japanese attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It arguably began in 1931 when Japan occupied Northeast China. Chinese people suffered the horrific climax of what was to become World War II in the terrible summer of 1937, four and half years before Pearl Harbor and more than two years before Hitler invaded Poland, following which Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany.
During that summer, the Imperial Japanese Army marched up the Yangtze River valley to Nanjing killing at least 300,000 Chinese civilians. The campaign culminated in the infamous "Rape of Nanjing", a war crime so heinous that it even horrified Nazi German civilians and diplomats.
The aim of the campaign was to terrify and traumatize the Chinese people into accepting Japanese imperial rule forever. It didn't work. But for the Chinese people it was the beginning of sufferings, not the end. By 1945, more than 16 million Chinese civilians had been killed as a direct result of the war and Japanese occupation. It was the terrible climax and consequence of China's "century of powerlessness" that began with Britain's war of aggression of 1840-42 to force China to accept unlimited opium imports.
Reflecting the long and terrible suffering of the Chinese people in that conflict, the Cairo Declaration pledged to put unrelenting military pressure on Japan until it agreed to unconditional surrender. It insisted that Japan be stripped of all the islands it had seized or occupied in the Pacific Ocean since the beginning of World War I in 1914. And it made it very clear that all the territories Japan had seized from China in nearly half a decade of aggression since 1895 should be restored to China.