China has some big problems, and some not-so-big problems. Among the big problems, we might list a disturbing decline in economic confidence; an index of environmental woes ranging from polluted air to expanding deserts; demographic and social imbalances that threaten to tear the country apart; a corrupt political class that is above the law; and a crisis of social morality. Among the not-so-big problems, we might list an argument with Japan over the ownership of a handful of tiny islands.
Japan also has some big problems, and some not-so-big problems. Among the big problems, we could mention an economy that is projected to produce one of the weakest growth rates anywhere on Earth between now and 2050; an energy crisis stemming from a determination to dispense with the country’s probably indispensable nuclear power industry; an unsustainably low birth rate; a dying defense industry whose stagnation poses a threat to national security; and, more generally, a lonely drift into the geostrategic periphery. Among the lesser problems, we could talk about those tiny islands again.
It might seem absurd, in light of those other matters, that the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute has captured the public imagination to the point where these islands, which virtually nobody in either country has ever laid eyes on, now tops the agenda in both China and Japan (just as similar disputes continue to dominate the headlines in places like the Philippines, another country that arguably has bigger problems). Of course, the islands do have real value: their owners are entitled to claim fishing grounds and undersea resources in addition to the land itself. But the resources are not the things that most Chinese and Japanese people consider important.
Something strange has happened: Symbolism has trumped realism in East Asia’s international discourse. Ordinary people (some of them, anyway) are more agitated about abstractions – national pride, identity and interpretations of history – than about bread-and-butter issues.
These self-inflicted mind games can be explained in part by the manipulation of nationalism both by governments and the media. In China, the Communist Party has hitched its legitimacy to issues of national sovereignty. This means two things: that it makes mountains out of territorial molehills; and that it purposefully inflates sovereignty issues in the national consciousness as a means of reinforcing its own perceived relevance. The Chinese media are not the government, but they often serve as a crude megaphone for official policy, both amplifying and simplifying Beijing’s private discussion for public consumption. As such, Chinese nationalism has been turned into an endorsement of the Party, just as the defense of Diaoyu – the idea, if not the real island – has become the Party’s raison d’etre.
Of course, Chinese people aren’t allowed to protest publicly about other issues, so it isn’t all that surprising that they should have leapt at the opportunity to protest about this one. And they certainly do hate Japan – the idea, if not the real place. In Japan, where there are other things to complain about, hearts are not beating quite so fast over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. But politicians who see nationalism as a vote-winner are doing what they can to quicken pulses. It’s a sorry advert for democracy when Japanese politicians play the nationalism card with all the cynicism of their Chinese counterparts.
It would be better for Beijing and Tokyo to hand the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute over to their diplomats and the United Nations for quiet, sensible resolution, and to tell their citizens the truth: that China and Japan have more important things to worry about; and that the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute is a work of the imagination.