There is no knowing whether an editorial in the People’s Daily on Friday that for all intents and purposes removed the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as the principal defender of China against Japanese invasion during World War II was simply out-of-control Chinese nationalism, or a more sinister attempt to blur the lines in the Taiwan Strait

For years now, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda has played down the KMT’s role in the war of resistance and elevated that of the communists to one that defies the historical record, a form of revisionism that, sadly, continues to be swallowed and reproduced by a number of Western academics, one of the latest being Martin Jacques in his influential book When China Rules the World.

While, for reasons of historical accuracy, the CCP’s claims should be countered with factual information (in many instances, CCP forces avoided directly confronting the Japanese, preserving their strength and weapons for the continuation of the Chinese Civil War after the war), the editorial comes at an odd moment in cross-strait relations, at a time when we would expect Beijing to play nice with the KMT as it gets ever closer to accomplishing the annexation it has long coveted.

At its most innocuous, this could be yet another example of Beijing shooting itself in the foot by failing to rein in its ­brimming nationalism. That it would downplay the KMT’s leading role in the war against Japan would be par for the course for the Chinese propaganda apparatus. However, that it would ignore the KMT’s role altogether gives the impression that it is attempting to pick a fight, and that it is doing so with an ulterior motive.

This is where the truly disturbing ramifications of this latest rhetorical war lie. Although the People’s Daily claim is an affront to the millions of KMT soldiers who died or were wounded defending their country against a stronger enemy amid on-and-off internecine warfare pitting the KMT against the communists, it invites a response from the KMT-led government in Taiwan that once again risks sucking Taiwan into the quicksand of Chinese history. What it does, in fact, is turn back the clock, undo decades of national consolidation in Taiwan and resurrects the unresolved Chinese Civil War in a way that victimizes Taiwanese, who now, as in 1945-1949, had nothing to do with that foreign madness.

The resumption of civil war following Japan’s defeat in 1945 saw some Taiwanese forced by the KMT to leave their homeland and fight communist forces in China, while ­dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) defeat led to the KMT exodus to Taiwan, where it imposed itself upon a powerless people. Rather than make them safer, these developments pushed Taiwanese into the trenches of the Cold War and exposed Taiwan to the risks of nuclear annihilation, turning a nation that had no stake in the conflict into the potential victim of an ongoing foreign war.

This time around, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration, amid recent efforts to turn back the clock and deny Taiwanese the nation that is theirs (on matters of the “national language” and culture, among others) has responded to China’s taunt in a way that cannot but serve as a major distraction. Facing this, we should ask ourselves why a new, supposedly localized KMT voted into office by the Taiwanese public would willingly step onto Beijing’s tripwire (no editorial in the People’s Daily would be published without the approval of senior CCP officials), when a far better answer would have been silence, the avoidance of a trap set to reopen old wounds.

Of course, such a reaction could only have been possible if the Ma administration had truly let go of the past — and its attachment to China — and become a ruler for and of the people of Taiwan, which, it increasingly seems, it hasn’t.

With the crucial November elections looming and a presidential poll less than two years away, Ma’s KMT will be flirting with danger if it steps into the ring with the CCP over the civil war. The great majority of people in Taiwan — Hakka, Aborigines, ethnic Taiwanese and wai­shengren, blue or green — are wise enough to have recognized long ago that the poisons of that distant war are better left untouched. More than that, it is not their war; it never was. What matters to them, even to those who voted Ma into office and who are growing increasingly disillusioned with his policies, is what the government can do to improve their lives and ensure their security, and do so in a dignified fashion. Anything else, especially ancient history involving an entirely different cast of characters, has no place in presidential office communiques and should be left with academics and military historians to harangue over.

Today’s KMT should have nothing to do with the despot who lost the war, at tremendous human cost, to former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) communists more than six decades ago. Should it fail to realize this, it could very well face another defeat — this one at the polls, in 2012.

– J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.