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The Rise of Nationalism in Japan and China

R S Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq.
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  • July 29, 2013

    It is said that when political leaderships are in domestic disarray they often look for salvation by deftly turning public attention towards contentious foreign policy issues. The victory of Japanese PM Abe’s party [LDP] in the recent upper house elections in Japan has demonstrated emphatically that nationalism is indeed one of the main driving factors in Japanese politics and that PM Abe had no compunction in co-opting it as a part of his election strategy. Of all the foreign policy issues in Japan, none is more emotive and appealing than adopting a tough anti-Chinese posture. Before the elections, PM Abe made significant gestures that only added to the strength of nationalist feeling amongst the Japanese electorate. On 17 July 2013, PM Abe visited the island of Ishigaki in the Okinawa chain of islands and inspected a Coast Guard vessel there and later in a speech to Air Self Defence[ASDF] units stations at Miyako island, spoke of his determination to ‘protect Japanese territories’ and vowed not to budge ‘one bit.’ No one missed the significance of PM Abe’s visit to these islands, so close to the disputed islands [Senkaku/Diaoyu] with China. On 21 April 2013, PM Abe defended the right of Japanese Ministers to visit the Yasukuni Shrine and he himself is slated to go there on 15 August [the day Japan surrendered] and lay a wreath with his full designation of Prime Minister written on it. Significantly, this nationalist feeling is largely anti-Chinese in its orientation and centers on the territorial dispute between the two countries over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Although Sino-Japanese bilateral trade is robust, touching nearly US $ 350 billion, yet there is an element of touchiness in Japan in that China has surpassed Japan to become the second largest economy in the world leaving Japan behind in third place. Nationalists in Japan find this fact galling. Also on the cards is the attempt to amend Article 96 of the US imposed Japanese Constitution that will allow a simple majority of both Houses of Parliament and a referendum to overturn Article 9; that prohibits Japan from using force as an instrument of state policy. All these policy changes are seen by China as a ploy by PM Abe to promote anti-China feelings. As a Chinese official commentary termed it, the two countries are now in a state of ‘cold confrontation.’1

    The present Chinese leadership too has not been remiss in promoting anti-Japanese feelings in China; purely for channeling domestic discontent into anti-Japanese sentiment. Modern Chinese nationalism that began with the 4 May movement [Protests against the Versailles Treaty] was also anti-Japanese in its orientation. The bitter relationship between the two countries that began with the Sino-Japanese War [1894] and culminated with massive Japanese atrocities committed during its occupation of China during the Second World War; were never allowed to rise above the surface during the Mao/Zhou period. For external ‘enemies’ Mao had the US and later the Soviet Union. When Deng Xiaoping first started his reform movement in 1978, there was stiff opposition from old CCP hardliners and skepticism within the general Chinese public about the efficacy of these reforms. The Chinese people wondered whether yet another calamity like the ‘Cultural Revolution’ was about to be inflicted on them. It was Deng who devised the strategy of targeting Japanese ‘atrocities’ during the Second World War as a means to divert public attention from the economic reforms that he was about to launch. Since then whenever Chinese Communist Party leaders have felt the need to find a scape goat in the form of an external enemy; Japan has invariably been targeted. As China’s GDP growth falters and China attempts to restructure its economy, it is bound to lead to acute internal dissension and greater inequality. Public cynicism which is on the increase erodes popular support for the Chinese Communist Party [CCP]. Already China’s budget for internal ‘public safety’ is about US $120 billion, larger than even China’s Defence budget [US $ 118 billion]. China’s gini co-efficient, the internationally accepted measure of a country’s inequality, has already touched 0.438, well above the UN mandated level of 0.4 that indicates a ‘warning’ of imminent domestic upheaval. The richest 10% in China hold 45% of China’s wealth whereas, conversely, the poorest 10% hold only 1.45% of China’s wealth2. Coupled with this there is rampant corruption, where for example, there are 83 billionaires listed as members of the National People’s Conference [NPC] as opposed to none in the US Senate and House of Representatives3. Ever afraid of renewed domestic upheaval, the new Chinese leadership might just be tempted to continue play the nationalist ‘card’ and perhaps even more vigorously than their predecessors. And the popular choice will inevitably be Japan again, for no other country arouses such emotions throughout China as does anti-Japanese feeling. It is for these reasons that the flare up over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute continues to fester and it will inevitably lead to the rise of unfettered nationalism.

    Both Japan and China have followed the same export driven model for economic development; albeit at different timelines. Both used low cost labor to drive manufacturing and under- valued their currency to provide exports a competitive edge. Exports were promoted at the cost of low house-hold income as well as consumption that encouraged a high domestic savings rate that was used to finance investment. Both countries generated huge export surpluses and invested these surpluses in US government bonds to avoid upward pressure on the value of their currency. Japan’s meteoric economic rise came to a stuttering halt after the US forced it to re-value the Yen upwards under the Plaza Accord in 1985. There is similar strong political pressure now on China to revise upwards the value of its currency--the Yuan vis-à-vis the US Dollar. President Obama aggressively pushed this agenda during his recent meeting in California with the new Chinese President Xi Jinping. For how long the Chinese can resist this intense pressure remains a moot point. Some economic analysts are already inferring that China is likely to go the Japanese way!

    Both Japan and China have no other alternative but to urgently re-structure their economic policies and go in for major reforms if Japan is to escape deflation and China an irreversible slowdown. This will inevitably cause domestic hardship and perhaps even a political backlash. Both will seek to play the card of nationalism to divert attention. Thus with the leadership both in China and in Japan having stoked the fires of nationalism for their domestic political requirements to a tipping point, will now find it hard to follow pragmatic policies. Every issue between Japan and China, no matter however trivial, will be seen as a test of national will. Both the new and untested Chinese and Japanese leaders have, as a part of collateral damage as a consequence of their policies, boxed themselves into untenable positions. Already Japanese and Chinese Coast Guard ships are in eye ball contact with each other near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and for the first time ever a Chinese Y-8 reconnaissance plane flew between the Okinawa and Miyako islands, in ostensibly international airspace; triggering the Japanese ASDF fighters to scramble. Each will now find it hard to de-escalate, for fear of being accused by their respective domestic critics of pusillanimity. No leader donning the colors of nationalism can politically afford such a charge. While a leader of the stature of Mao Zedung could easily have restrained the ‘hot-heads,’ there is no such charismatic leader amongst the present Chinese leadership.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. Global Times/23 July 2013.
    • 2. Susan Shirk/The Fragile Super-Power [China]
    • 3. Financial Times/7 March 2013

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