World Naval Developments: Nationalism Unleashed

November 16, 2012 3:21 PM - Updated: February 5, 2013 3:37 PM

Proceedings, November 2012
A simmering dispute over some uninhabited islands south of Japan offers insight into the way domestic politics can drive foreign policy—perhaps all the way to war—in both China and Japan.

The islands in question, which the Chinese call the Diaoyus and the Japanese the Senkakus, have little or no intrinsic value, but the Chinese view is that enforcing a variety of claims to islands in the South China Sea is worthwhile, because it also reinforces the claim that the sea, which covers valuable resources, is Chinese territory. That other countries, such as Vietnam and Malaysia, also claim some of these islands has long made the South China Sea a potential flashpoint. In the current case, however, the driving force in both countries seems to be domestic.

Navy Diver assigned to Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) 2, Company 4, operates a suction dredge system during an underwater recovery operation in search of a missing service member on 6 October in the Mediterranean Sea. U.S. Navy
Navy Diver assigned to Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) 2, Company 4, operates a suction dredge system during an underwater recovery operation in search of a missing service member on 6 October in the Mediterranean Sea. U.S. Navy

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has long used World War II as a way of rallying public support. For China, the key facts of that conflict were Japanese aggression followed by gross atrocities such as the rape of Nanking. The Communist Party claims that it, rather than the rival Nationalists, offered effective opposition to the Japanese. Whatever the reality, to many in China the important point is that the party has created a China that never again need fear such an attack. Japan has never effectively apologized for its aggression in the way that Germany did after World War II. As a consequence, few in China (or, for that matter, in Korea) have forgiven the Japanese. Some of the consequences may not be obvious to Westerners. For example, Taiwan, which Japan acquired in 1895, was treated rather well within the Japanese Empire: many Taiwanese have positive views of the Japanese. Some, perhaps many, mainland Chinese consider Taiwanese leaders tainted by such attitudes. It happens that in the dispute over the islands, the Taiwanese stand with their brethren on the mainland, the claim for the islands first having been made by the Nationalists (who took refuge in Taiwan when they were defeated on the mainland) in 1947.

It might seem that public opinion has little impact on the ruling Chinese Communist Party. After all, in a dictatorship like China the party ought to be able to change its line at will, as the Russians used to do. However, the party in China seems uncomfortably aware that radical shifts can be dangerous. Over the past few months it has been shaken by the party leader in Chongqing, Bo Xilai, who seemed to be reaching for power by appealing to those who feel the party has gone too capitalist. Bo’s appeal to those unhappy with the inequality in current Chinese society was clearly dangerous. His attackers charged that he wanted to return to the radical days of the Cultural Revolution—to a violently egalitarian China (Bo used to play Cultural Revolution music at his rallies). Bo was removed, stripped of his party membership, and placed on trial (his wife received a suspended death sentence for poisoning a British businessman, who may have been involved in espionage). That all of this happened just before the transition to a new Chinese leadership was particularly embarrassing.

The party seeks to maintain control in several ways, in addition to the usual one of punishing anyone who opposes it too outspokenly. One carrot is the career benefits of party membership, but that brings in many who have little loyalty to the party and who might easily sour on it. A related carrot is that the party has brought prosperity, and that the anarchy of any other type of state would destroy it. Unfortunately the Chinese economy depends heavily on exports. A serious recession ruins the export market. Would the consequences in China include enough economic trouble to undermine the party?

That leaves the party’s claim that it alone has made China strong enough to overcome the humiliations of the last century and a half that culminated in the Japanese invasion. This form of nationalism works, but it has consequences. It is so important to the party that the party cannot afford to reverse course on it—cannot suddenly decide that the Japanese are not so bad, for example, because few Chinese would take that seriously. World War II is too important as a unifier (as it was, incidentally, in the case of the Soviet Union). Weakness toward Japan is particularly unacceptable at a vulnerable time of leadership transition, when the party also has to fend off what it considers a dangerous attack from the left, and also when the prosperity argument is in trouble.

In a bizarre way, the Japanese situation mirrors China’s. Many in Japan do not accept any sense of guilt for the Pacific war. For example, Japanese prime ministers typically visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, nominally the memorial to Japan’s war dead. That Yasukuni is also a memorial to the Japanese claim that they fought to liberate Asia tends not to warm Chinese (or Korean, or many other Asian) hearts. Prime ministers would not visit the shrine unless many Japanese voters rather strongly echoed the sentiment it represents (the shrine is privately run; it is not an official memorial).

The account of World War II in Japanese textbooks would seem quite unfamiliar to Americans, as it greatly downplays the history of Japan’s aggression in China leading up to the outbreak of war with the Western powers in 1941 (Asian governments periodically protest this lack of content). This is not to say that a majority of Japanese would welcome a chance to revisit China with a large army, but rather that nationalism is alive and well in Japan, and ignoring it can be dangerous. In effect Japanese nationalism is equivalent to the Chinese nationalism that remembers World War II so vividly.

Japan has serious problems, from which nationalism may represent a welcome escape. The recession of the 1990s has never really ended. The combination of a low birth rate and unwillingness to welcome foreigners into the work force has left the country with too few workers supporting too many elderly people (a situation which, ironically, the Chinese will face in a few decades). Japanese politicians have proven unable to break the uneconomic practices that have precluded growth. In a democracy, even more than in the Chinese dictatorship, people undoubtedly link their support for the government to a sense that it will help them prosper. If it cannot or will not do so, why support it?

Nationalism is so often the answer to this question that it should not be surprising to see more of it in Japan. The current crisis was triggered when the Japanese government announced that it was buying the islands from a private owner. The rival buyer was the governor of Tokyo, a nationalist who sees attacking China as a way to rise.

The Japanese situation is complicated in that China seems to be acquiring more of the sort of military power that could be used against Japan. A new aircraft carrier, commissioned (and named) in September, may be the most spectacular case in point. Many Japanese are probably aware that the stated Chinese objective of gaining control over island chains off the Asian coast can be read as including gaining control over their country, which is part of one of those island chains. The Japanese are also well aware that the North Koreans are buying offensive weapons, and that they have nuclear weapons—and the North Koreans, quite as much as the Chinese, remember wartime Japanese misdeeds all too well.

The Chinese and Japanese governments seem well aware that any outbreak of hostilities would be pointless; most of what is happening in the islands might be dismissed as symbolic. However, in both countries many people are far more excited (a Chinese newspaper suggested abandoning diplomacy in favor of a nuclear strike against Japan). It is not too difficult to imagine a nationalist in either country seeking power by exploiting that sentiment. If that seems bizarre, remember how much damage Serbian nationalism exploited by Slobodan Milosevic did to the former Yugoslavia and to the unfortunates living there.

Japan and China are major trading partners, so any break (even nonviolent) would damage both. Unfortunately, politicians often do not realize what they are risking. The frightening precedent is 1914, when the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, in effect converted a local crisis (due to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria) into a general European war. There is evidence that the Germans wanted a war in 1914. At a conference a few years earlier, Wilhelm remarked rather hysterically that unless he did something, the Russians would surpass Germany by 1916.

The hysteria probably had a much more domestic source, and one with current echoes. In 1912 Germany had a semi-democratic government whose finances (but not, crucially, foreign and military policy) were governed by the elected Reichstag. From the kaiser’s point of view, the 1912 elections were disastrous because the Social Democrats gained a majority. The Reichstag might have begun to act like a real parliament, seeking greater power by refusing to provide funds, for example, to the German military (a similar initiative by the English Parliament ignited the English Civil War in the 17th century).

To some German historians, the origin of war in 1914 can be found in the hope, by Wilhelm and other Germans in the government, that a quick victorious war would save the situation. They sold the war to the Reichstag by representing it as defensive (the Reichstag was fairly nationalistic, despite the kaiser’s fears). The war, which was hardly short, ended the Wilhelm’s rule, devastated Europe, and led to an even worse conflagaration two decades later.

It is very unlikely that anyone in a responsible position in China or Japan has similar fantasies right now, but the essence of the situation is that domestic factors may decide what happens over the next few years. That the two countries base a lot of their prosperity on trade with each other may be no more significant than the fact that the German economy of 1914 depended heavily on trade with countries like the United Kingdom, which soon became their enemies.

Norman Friedman

Norman Friedman

Dr. Friedman is the author of The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapon Systems , Fifth Edition, and Network-centric Warfare: How Navies Learned to Fight Smarter Through Three World Wars , available from the Naval Institute Press at

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