An anti-China protest in Vietnam.                                         Source: VNExpress/AFP via Getty Images
An anti-China protest in Vietnam.                                         Source: VNExpress/AFP via Getty Images

For all China's stern injunctions to Japan to remember wartime history, its bumbling aggression in Southeast Asia suggests it also could use a refresher course.

The arrival of a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by both China and Vietnam is a case in point. Demonstrations in Vietnam over China's bullying deteriorated into a series of attacks by Vietnamese on foreign businesses, many run by Taiwanese with Chinese workers, that resulted in two dead and scores injured.

China, of all countries, should know better. In the decades before World War II, it suffered territorial incursions and economic depredations at the hands of Japan. These, in turn, sparked widespread popular protests and economic boycotts.

One of the most severe reactions came after Japan's promulgation of its "21 Demands" in January 1915. Capitalizing on its status as one of the Allied powers in World War I, which enabled its takeover of Germany's territorial holdings on China's Shandong peninsula, Japan browbeat China into granting it de facto control over swathes of Chinese territory and valuable railway and mining concessions. Although China's government went along to avoid war, the Chinese people responded with demonstrations, strikes and boycotts. As the historian Odd Arne Westad writes, "The Twenty-One Demands became a watershed in Sino-Japanese relations. To many Chinese they symbolized an aggressive Japan that had become the main threat to China's independence."

Even more galling to many Chinese was the Versailles Treaty's ratification of Japan's control of the Shandong Peninsula in 1919. That sparked not only more protests and a major national boycott but the birth of the May Fourth Movement, a larger attempt by students, intellectuals and disaffected Chinese government officials to create a new national consciousness. As one student manifesto of the time put it, "China's territory may be conquered, but it cannot be given away." Fear of Japan became one of the strongest animating forces of Chinese nationalism, even as Japan's trade and investment ties with China, and with other countries in Asia, grew.

There are other historical similarities between Japan's pre-war behavior and China's attitude toward its territorial disputes with five of its Southeast Asian neighbors. The maximalism of China's infamous "cow's tongue" claim to the entire South China Sea today is reminiscent of Japan's over-reaching 21 Demands. China's insistence on bilateral negotiations over territory, where size gives it maximal advantage, mirrors Japan's efforts to isolate China diplomatically. Like thinkers in prewar Japan who had their own version of an Asian "Monroe Doctrine," strategists in 21st century China hope to displace U.S. naval forces from the Pacific. And the belligerence of China's public commentary on territorial disputes echoes the tone of Imperial Japan's pronouncements about China's unwillingness to grant Japan its place in the sun -- even if the Chinese have been less grandiloquent about it. Whereas Japan painted itself as a "modern" country especially equipped to play by Western rules to dominate Asia, China's leaders are more apt to argue, as its foreign minister did to his Southeast Asian peers in 2010, "China is a big country, and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact."

The outcome of such attitudes will likely be the same, too: nationalist outbursts in the countries China seeks to intimidate, which in turn could increase the risks of miscalculation and hostilities.

At a Chinese Foreign Ministry briefing the day after the Vietnamese riots, a spokeswoman chided Vietnam for not doing more to stop the mayhem. Without missing a beat, she then turned to the subject of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's increasingly assertive foreign policy, urging Japan "to earnestly face up to and reflect upon its history, respect the legitimate and reasonable security concerns of regional countries, pursue a peaceful development path and play a constructive role in maintaining regional peace and stability." Historical wisdom begins at home, Chairman Xi Jinping.

To contact the author of this article:James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net