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East Asia and nationalism

Published: Tuesday, 25th September 2012

Ditchley’s  latest conference on Security and Prosperity in East Asia turned out to be particularly timely, coinciding as it did with violent demonstrations in Beijing and elsewhere in China against Japanese behaviour over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. The man expected to be China’s next leader, Xi Jinping, also reappeared during the conference after a much discussed absence of two weeks from public view. Both these closely-followed events demonstrated the extent to which what happens in this region is crucial for the rest of the world.

We spent a lot of time discussing developments in China and in US/China relations, despite assuring each other constantly that the region was not all about either. We also focussed on the continuing threat from the Korean peninsula and North Korea’s apparent determination to pursue her nuclear ambitions. But for me the most striking feature of the debate was the real fear expressed by many, from the region and outside, about the dangers of the rise of nationalism in the major countries we were talking about: China, Japan and South Korea. Several speakers expressed their worry that passions could easily get out of control in one country or another, and lead to a downward spiral of reaction and counter-reaction which governments might not be able to control, assuming they wanted to do so.

There was clearly a risk that governments would flirt with nationalist forces and sentiments for their own domestic purposes, perhaps even stoking nationalist concerns, without taking fully on board the extent to which they were playing with fire. Attention was drawn to the hyper-nationalist nature of many exchanges and views in the blogosphere and social media. This was a particular feature in China, but was visible in Japan and Korea too.

What is behind this explosion of nationalist feeling? It has different roots in each country, but in each case is heavily influenced by historical experience and emotion. Centuries of rivalry and conflict between proud neighbours influence this but it is more recent events which provoke the greatest sensitivity. Chinese people are encouraged to reflect on their century of humiliation at the hands of foreigners and to work to ensure that this cannot happen again. Memories of some events during the Second World War are still raw. Korean feelings about their treatment during the War are similarly sensitive. Japanese apologies, and compensation in some cases, are not seen as having gone far enough by some, especially when politicians choose to behave in ways seen as provocative. The Japanese themselves feel that they have done all they can to take responsibility for past actions and resent the way in which these actions continue to be brought up and held against them. In each country anniversaries and memorials help to stir the pot in unhelpful ways.

The immediate causes of new expressions of rising nationalism lie in the territorial disputes over chains of islands, often quite small and uninhabited, in the region. In some cases in the South  China Sea, there are multiple claims involved. While there are issues about resources involved, whether fishing rights, oil exploration or other minerals, the driving force seems to be more national pride than real interests. Previous attempts to park these rival sovereignty claims, and even aim for joint economic development  in some cases, seem to have broken down. Each side tends to blame the other for provoking trouble by visits or other demonstrations of sovereignty. Many of her neighbours regard China as throwing her weight around by exaggerated punitive responses where incidents have taken place. No-one is willing to give up their claimed rights, and the chances of settlement of any of these disputes looks remote for now – sovereignty disputes are in any case not really soluble through negotiation unless both sides are willing to submit themselves to international legal arbitration.

Meanwhile the risk of incidents escalating out of control is high, and there are few if any bilateral or multilateral mechanisms in place in most cases to help control them. At the minimum agreed rules about behaviour by naval vessels are needed, together with hot lines between those responsible and mutual acquaintance wherever possible. These would at least provide guidelines where accidental clashes are concerned, though deliberately engineered incidents would obviously be much more difficult to handle.

In the longer term the region needs some multilateral security architecture which would provide effective fora for discussing and dealing with these kinds of problems. Its absence is a glaring and curious gap. While the situations are not comparable, the institutions established in Europe during the cold war might provide some useful examples for the future. But none of this is likely to happen or to help in the coming months or even the next few years.

Many assume that the sheer weight of economic links between the different countries concerned, including those in South East Asia, and the multiplicity of other contacts, from tourism upwards, would be enough to ensure that nationalist feelings do not get out of control. Economic interdependence is now such, in both trade and investment terms, that the importance of the territories in question pales into insignificance by comparison. No-one wants to kill the geese that lay the golden eggs. Surely the governments concerned have enough wisdom, and enough mutual dialogue and interaction, to deal with the fall-out of even serious incidents?

This may well be right. But it could also prove a dangerously complacent assumption. History teaches us that rationality is not always a good guide to how governments behave when under pressure, including from their own public opinion. Moreover governments during periods of political transition can be particularly volatile and vulnerable to sentiment. Appealing for solidarity against a foreign enemy has long been a tactic for floundering regimes. Wise heads will be needed in the region to avoid the traps. And the outside world must meanwhile do all it can to encourage moderation, while avoiding taking sides in the disputes themselves. We all have too much to lose if the balloon ever goes up.

Sir John Holmes GCVO, KBE, CM
The Ditchley Foundation