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Nationalism and the China-Japan Island Disputes

by Guest Blogger for Yanzhong Huang
September 18, 2012

Protesters hold Chinese national flags and a poster showing the disputed Islands, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China, on the 81st anniversary of Japan's invasion of China, in Chengdu. Protesters hold Chinese national flags and a poster showing the disputed Islands, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China, on the 81st anniversary of Japan's invasion of China, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, September 18, 2012. (Jason Lee/Courtesy Reuters)


Professor Yinan He, an expert on Sino-Japanese relations, offers her assessment on the ongoing crisis over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

In the past week mass protests against Japan’s nationalization of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands have swept Chinese cities across both coastal and inland areas, unprecedented since 2005 when many Chinese took to the streets to oppose Japan’s revision of history textbooks that whitewashed its wartime aggression. Since then, the damage has been slowly mended thanks to years of painstaking diplomatic efforts on both sides. But in no time things have been pushed back to square one—or even worse. Both long-standing historical grievances powered by nationalist indoctrination and the emerging shift of power in the region account for the new escalation of tension.

It all seems to have started in April when the hawkish governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, made a bid to purchase the islands. The central government then stepped in with a nationalization deal. But attentive watchers of Sino-Japanese relations can find deeper roots of the recent crisis. One may point to the previous flare-up two years ago as a trigger for Ishihara’s move. In that incident Tokyo attempted to prosecute the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that collided with Japanese Coast Guard ships near the islands, but ultimately submitted to Beijing’s high-handed diplomacy.

A more profound cause of mutual animosity is the decades of nationalist preaching in both countries about a traumatic war they fought from 1937 to 1945, as explained in my book. In an effort to salvage the weakened legitimacy of the Communist regime, patriotic propaganda emphasizing Japanese wartime atrocities and heroic Chinese resistance have since the 1980’s replaced the tired communist ideology. It fueled victim consciousness and a sense of entitlement toward Japan among the Chinese. Meanwhile, with its economic miracle stunted and political reform stagnating, many Japanese politicians played to nationalist groups in order to boost national confidence and win popular votes. While pacifism and the Japanese feeling of war guilt used to keep anti-Chinese nationalism marginal, the old culture has gradually faded, much due to people’s anxiety about an increasingly powerful and assertive China in East Asia.

When an ancient feud is inflamed by new fears, overreactions occur. Not only are the anti-Japanese demonstrations in China the largest and vandalism the worst since the two countries normalized relations in 1972, but Chinese surveillance ships also entered Japan’s claimed territorial waters near the islands, hiking the danger of a military clash. Should armed conflicts erupt, the U.S. would have to intervene based on its alliance commitment to Japan, which is about the last thing that Washington wants to do at the moment. But given Japanese public sentiment and oppositional pressure, backpedalling is hardly conceivable for Tokyo. Beijing’s hands are equally tied, as it faces the dilemma of either appearing soft-kneed if it suppresses mass protests too harshly, or suffering damage to China’s social stability and international image should the chaos drag on.

The timing is also highly sensitive as China’s leadership transition is pending in an upcoming party congress. How to resolve the crisis would be a critical test for both the outgoing leaders concerned with their legacies and new leaders keen on demonstrating their credentials. Restraint is what is needed for all parties, but it will have to be exercised on the condition of saving face for both Beijing and Tokyo. Symbolic gestures for domestic consumption aside, concrete actions must be taken immediately in order to quell the extremists at home. Back in 2005, Beijing was able to end the three-week-long anti-Japanese demonstrations without event, a decent record that can be replicated. And Hong Kong activists who landed on the islands in mid-August have been told that their ship was not fit for a repeat journey. Further provocations can also be prevented by an explicit pledge by Tokyo to prohibit landing by Japanese nationals and to refrain from developing infrastructure on the islands.

Still, a fundamental solution to the island disputes and other outstanding problems between China and Japan is to confront the monster of xenophobic nationalism that has fed on historical myth and that has been emboldened by the uncertain future of the region. Wise leaders of a rising China and of a Japan wishing for a rebound should not let emotional prejudices eclipse their larger shared interests.

Post a Comment 14 Comments

  • Posted by AShanghai

    Though a bit heavy-handed, the author of this piece has near perfectly summarized the entire situation that this political issue was caused by, and has caused.
    The majority of the public here in China does not quite know why they want the island, but they DO know why they dislike the Japanese: years of propaganda and Red Party tv shows demonizing the Japanese.

  • Posted by William Simms

    The United States has no obligation to intervene in a fight between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, as is not at all clear that the islands are part of Japan’s sovereign territory. In fact, it is easily argued that Japan’s current claim over the islands on the basis is completely illegitimate on the basis of the Japan’s acceptance of the Cairo and Potsdam declarations coupled with the lack of Chinese acquiescence to the disposition of previously Japanese occupied territories under the terms of the treaty of San Francisco, contrary to the requirements of Potsdam.

  • Posted by Barbara

    This is a well-researched and balanced article. I am an American of Japanese ancestry. My family has lived in the US since the early 1900’s. Many of my friends are Chinese-American whose families go back three or four generations and many others are newly-arrived Chinese immigrants to the U.S. We share a common history and interests as Americans of Asian ancestry. We are dismayed by the tension betw Japan and China. We all hope that these countrieswill negotiate a peaceful settlement over the Senkaku or Diaoyutai Islands and that neither country will adopt a narrow, nationalistic, unproductive stance. There is so much that must be done in the world to make it a better place for all of us to live. We do not need yet another tiresome dispute to distract us from constructive activities. In my humble opinion the Diaoyutai/Senkakus could be turned into a wildlife sanctuary and green marine research station administered in rotating or shared fashion by Chinese and Japanese scientist/administrators. It could be a place where biologists from China and Japan and maybe other countries too could do ocean and ecological research side-by-side. It could also be a destination for very limited eco-tourism making sure humans don’t leave too big a carbon footprint. A joint venture of this sort would be truly new and revolutionary. Narrow nationalism might feel good for the moment, but it is like a young child exploding with a tantrum. Japan and China should strive to turn this dispute into its opposite: shared experiences and discoveries, which can lead to lifetime friendships.

  • Posted by Thomas

    I am not fully aware of the intricacies of this dispute but I currently live in Shanghai and stumbled upon the protest over the weekend. My impression was that it was sponsored by the government, as the emotions expressed by the protestors felt calculated, the Chinese non-protestors appeared thoroughly indifferent and the police, who outnumbered the protestors four to one, seemed to be on the side of the protestors, escorting them (essentially) to the consulate and providing a lot of space for them. What I am reading in the papers does not match what I observed.

    My question is, how does this issue support the Chinese government? It is clear that it wants to assert itself internationally and I wonder if this tension is useful in selling it to the public?

  • Posted by JanMan

    Shanghai & Thomas,

    I don’t think both of you fully understand the situation other than commenting for the sake of commenting.

    To accuse the Chinese Government of brainwashing its people for the hatred against Japan appeared so ludicrous indeed. Whoever that governed China whether it’s democratic or communist is immaterial to say the least. Further if both of you can see a broader view, consideration must also be taken on why the hatred of the Koreans against the Japanese are so deeply ingrained as well.

    It’s the inner sentiment of every Chinese and Korean trying to understand of how badly they had been mistreated by the Japanese during WW2 that it will not easily be forgiven and forgotten. If the crime is just a simple massacre, the pain may be lesser but to hear on the accounts of how their ancestors had been tortured, raped, butchered or experimented in biological chemical lab as guinea pigs only reflected the image of how inhuman the Japanese can lower themselves. The horrendous nightmare will not go away in many years to come.

    Yes, there are calls for sanity on all sides but the salient fact is that the Japanese have NEVER ever repented even until now for what they did during WW2 that could only further endangered the peaceful settlement between Japan and all its neighbors. The onus is to be borne by the Japanese to reflect their own insincerity whether they want to live peacefully in the sea of hostility against them.

  • Posted by John Chan

    WW2 ended 67 years ago and most people that witness it are already dead. It’s time to put the past behind us and focus on the future. What would happen in China if people started to protest the senseless killing of millions of it’s own Chinese people during the Mao culture revolution? The CCP government would make them disappear.

  • Posted by Andrew

    @JanMan: By “the Japanese have NEVER ever repented” you actually mean that the dozens of statements by Japanese leaders expressing regret for WWII have all been either:
    1.) viewed in China as inadequate, or
    2.) not publicised in China

    I don’t believe i have the right to tell the Chinese people whether or not to be satisfied with Japan’s apologies, but i do believe the Chinese people have a right to know that Japan’s leaders have in fact apologised for WWII many times:

    You could add greatly to this discussion by explaining exactly what is it that you want to see from Japan – what would make you satisfied and ready to leave the past aside, to be friends?

  • Posted by KC

    For the commentators who do not understand why Chinese people are so frustrated with the recent actions of Japanese government, they should read the history of how Japanese government hurt Chinese and Korean people during WW2 and how Japanese government denied their wrongdoings.

    Japanese government is still glorifying the war criminals and seeing them as heros. Japanese government are telling their kids that Japanese did not invade China and Korea…..

    I don’t think that Chinese government should make a compromise.

    U.S. would be foolish to join the war with Japan. Remember what happen in Pearl Harbour? Japan may not be a friend to U.S.

  • Posted by moonisland

    The Japan’s claim is not illegitimate at all. First, in the the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Senkaku Islands were not included in the area where Japan renounces all rights. Second, in the agreement between Japan and the United States of America Concerning the Ryukyu Islands and the Daito Islands, Senkaku Islands are included in the area where the administrative rights where returned from the U.S. to Japan.

  • Posted by Barbara

    @KC Hello. Americans are not likely to forget Pearl Harbor. We don’t need reminders. Every school child is taught about the attack. It is in every textbook. There is a museum on Pearl Harbor commemorating lives lost and tours for tourists that visit. And there are many American movies made about PH or with references to it. December 7, 1941 was indeed a day that will live in infamy. But it you are saying the US shouldn’t join with Japan “in a war” with China over the islands because at one time Japan attacked the US I think you miss the main point, and that is there should be no war at all — this dispute should be settled peacefully, in accordance with international law and diplomacy.

    And this is an aside: As an American of Japanese ancestry the slogan “Remember Pearl Harbor” makes me uncomfortable because it often accompanies violence against Japanese (and Chinese) in America. In the US “Remember Pearl Harbor” is a slogan used by rabid nationalists, hawkish politicians, ignorant people, and even racists who want to drum up hate and distrust of Japan for their own opportunistic reasons or to distract the public from America’s own internal problems.

  • Posted by Thomas

    JanMan, thank you for the condescension. I am fully aware of the historical tensions between these three countries, but merely made an observation. It is interesting to note that several newspapers have commented that there are reports on Chinese micro blogs that some protestors were getting paid, supporting my curious question to begin with.

  • Posted by Kevin Bayona

    The dispute between China and Japan could quickly spiral out of control unless cooler heads prevail. China is increasingly throwing its weight around in an attempt to become the regional hegemon in its hemisphere.

    The American response to China’s behavior will be key to how the Far East continues to adapt to a rapidly changing balance of power in the region.

    The United States will likely attempt to contain China’s power in the region through bi-lateral partnerships with India, Australia, Japan, Vietnam, and South Korea. Japan will likely re-militarize to some degree.

    China will resist what it perceives to be a strategic encirclement, and the region will increasingly fill with tension akin to Europe just prior to 1914.

    The United States should avoid being drawn into a new cold war/arms race with China, but instead serve as a framer and mediator of the region’s issues.

    The United States must also preclude China from becoming a regional hegemon which would be extremely destabilizing and threaten America’s ability to lead the world.

  • Posted by Rob

    JanMan, the protestors were assembled and paid to demonstrate by the chinese government…just to make it look like the average chinese gives a damn…and also to gain support from the uninformed chinese public and the world…the average chinese is too busy working at the factories to be protesting…if the chinese government has to try to manipulate world opinion for heir case, then their case may must be weak…btw, chinese media reports it like they are real protestors…

  • Posted by Samuel Ogbonna

    I think the US should focus more on the region’s security issues. Europe, traditionally America’s main security focus, will be quiet for a while. These two countries have a massive impact and so America should try to moderate what’s going on there.

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