China and Japan: Nationalism rising?Posted: 17/09/2012
By Christian Le Miere, Research Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security
We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning. –Billy Joel
In January 1930, Mao Zedong wrote a letter in which he repeated an old Chinese saying: “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” Mao was referring to the possibility that the communist movement, although small at the time, had the potential to wage a successful revolution. The phrase is just as apt in the current situation, as protests sweep Chinese cities, with Japanese products and businesses being attacked in five different cities.
What is the source of the latest discontent? A long-running disagreement over the sovereignty of five small islands and three rock formations in the East China Sea that has recently risen once again to the top of the agenda. The decision by the central Japanese government to purchase three of the five islands from their private owner last week, although intended to limit potential damage that might have been caused if Tokyo’s nationalistic governor Shintaro Ishihara succeeded in his bid to do the same, inspired an intense reaction from China’s population.
The popular backlash, inspired further by the decision by China to send six maritime paramilitary vessels to the waters surrounding the islands over the weekend, is an excellent example of the dangers of nationalism within Asia. In a region rife with historical enmity and chauvinism, encouraged by a perceived lack of contrition from Tokyo for its wartime atrocities, revisionist historical textbooks in Japan and official discourse in China that the country suffered a ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of foreigners, nationalism is a powerful force that can bolster the popularity of domestic political movements. With elections expected in Japan in the next few months and a changeover in China’s political leadership, which now relies on the twin props of nationalism and economic vibrancy to maintain legitimacy, this is a lesson well understood.
But given its potency it is also difficult to control. Nationalism can both turn against the government, if it is perceived as doing too little and harnesses other latent discontent among the population, and ensure the government loses control over the policy debate. This latter factor means Beijing will often allow the valve of nationalism to release steam to begin with, as it did during anti-Japanese protests in September 2005 that were initially tacitly encouraged by a lackadaisical security force, but will subsequently rein in the protests when they may get out of control, as happened over the weekend.
It is also important to note that neither Japan nor China (nor indeed Taiwan, which also sent two Coast Guard vessels to the islands over the weekend) wish to see conflict over the islands. Despite their strategic value, both in terms of the resources that may lie within the exclusive economic zone around them and their position just north of Taiwan within the ‘first island chain’ that Beijing perceives as a restraining factor in its ability to project power, the fact that it is paramilitary vessels being sent is a signal that military action is not desired. For how long this lasts is unclear; a live-fire exercise by China’s East Sea Fleet on Sunday, which included more than 40 missile launches, was a timely reminder of the country’s growing ability to bring military power to bear in support of its interest, even if the intent does not yet exist.
Christian Le Miere’s forthcoming article on nationalism in Asia in Survival, ‘Games countries play,’ will be published online on Friday, 21 September.