By Megha Rajagopalan
SHENYANG, China (Reuters) - China took reporters on Thursday on an unusual trip to a camp which housed Western prisoners of the Japanese in World War Two, a further sign of Beijing broadening efforts to drive a wedge between the West and Japan over its wartime past.
The visit comes as tensions between Asia's two largest economies rise to a fever pitch, and China works to convince the world of its viewpoint that Japan's war-era militarism is directly linked to its current military buildup.
China's ties with Japan have long been poisoned by what Beijing sees as Tokyo's failure to atone for its occupation of parts of China before and during World War Two.
China consistently reminds its people of Japan's historical brutality, such as the 1937 Nanjing Massacre in which China says Japanese troops killed 300,000 people in the then national capital.
A postwar Allied tribunal put the death toll at 142,000, but some conservative Japanese politicians and scholars deny a massacre took place.
Beijing is now stepping up efforts to take its message to the West, especially aimed at the United States, Britain and other Western nations who fought with China against Japan.
At the former prisoner of war camp outside the industrial northeastern city of Shenyang, reporters were shown graphic images of the terrible conditions endured by some 2,000 prisoners from the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
"Life was extremely difficult for the prisoners in the camp. Food was an extremely precious thing. It was almost impossible to have contact with them as a Chinese person," said Li Lishui, 89, the last of a group of Chinese who helped the prisoners by passing them food.
Li proudly showed off a certificate of appreciation given him by the U.S. State Department in 2005 for his efforts.
He added it was important people understood what was happening now in Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has upped military spending and is contemplating stretching the limits of the pacifist constitution amid an ugly territorial spat in the East China Sea.
"The way the Japanese think about the East China Sea now is like how they thought about northeast China. They didn't stop at the northeast, they kept heading south to Shanghai and even Southeast Asia," Li said.
Abe elicited harsh criticism from China last month when he visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals are honored along with war dead. China and South Korea see the shrine as a symbol of Japan's militaristic past, and visits there by Japanese leaders have strained relations.
Deteriorating relations between Beijing and Tokyo have been fuelled by a row over a chain of disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese. Ships from both countries frequently shadow each other around the islets, raising fears of a clash.
Shenyang - known for its coal mines and harsh winters - is particularly significant to the Chinese because of its role in Japan's wartime occupation.
Japanese troops attacked Chinese military barracks in Shenyang in 1931 - the start of the Japanese occupation of large parts of China that only ended with the close of World War Two.
China has also been using its foreign ambassadors to spread the message about the perceived Japanese threat.
Earlier this month, China's ambassador to Britain Liu Xiaoming wrote an editorial in The Telegraph newspaper comparing Japan's militarism to Voldemort, the infamous villain the popular Harry Potter series of children's books.
Liu reminded his British readers that Britain and China were allies during the war, and referred to the new movie, "The Railway Man", starring Hollywood actors Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, a harrowing tale of Western prisoners of war forced by Japan to build the Burma railway during the war.
Japan has not stood idly by, with its ambassador to London writing in the same newspaper that it was China who was like Voldemort. Tokyo has also announced plans to take Beijing-based foreign reporters to visit Japan to explain its point of view.
Japan points to China's actions, such as setting up an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea and its aggressive moves in the South China Sea, as evidence Beijing is acting aggressively.
Sun Cheng, a professor of Chinese-Japanese relations at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, said Beijing was breaking new ground in taking its warnings about Japan directly to the English-speaking world.
"Japan is viewed in the West as a democracy which should have the support of the United States, Britain and others," he added. "But Japan is changing and we need to pay attention to this and ... reminding the world about its past is understandable."
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Greg Torode in HONG KONG; Editing by Nick Macfie)