China’s Restrained Nationalism

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China’s Restrained Nationalism

Chinese leaders have displayed more self-control when it comes to sovereignty issues than their counterparts in Asia.

Many countries in East Asia are facing the same dilemma: how to manage a groundswell of nationalist sentiment. It’s a delicate challenge. Giving the nationalists too little quarter could expose a government to political turmoil at home; but overindulging them could lead to conflict abroad.

Nationalism is as pressing a concern in China as in any country in the region, and the need for Beijing to cater to the nationalist sections of society is often mentioned as a factor in government decision-making. However, bellicose editorials in The Global Times – albeit sanctioned at some level of government – are not expressions of policy. Similarly, Hu Jintao was not among the boatload of Chinese campaigners who got themselves arrested on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands last week. Perhaps the Chinese authorities could have done more to prevent the ship from sailing; but at the same time this was not a state action.

In fact, China’s policy in its approach to territorial disputes has been very consistent in its resistance to the ebb and flow of nationalist demands. The extreme solutions proposed by nationalists online or in print concerning spats with the Philippines and Vietnam, for example, have been roundly ignored by Beijing. Instead, China has avoided confrontation except when responding to what it interprets (rightly or wrongly) as acts of provocation; and even then it has favored civilian law enforcement ships over military vessels when handling maritime disputes.

Few of the other countries involved in East Asia’s sovereignty tangles can claim to have shown such restraint. Elsewhere, leaders have been much more willing to play to the nationalist gallery – especially in the region’s democracies, where politicians are more responsive to the popular mood.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak provides the best recent example: his visit to the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands earlier this month was a political stunt that surprised as many people in Seoul as it upset in Tokyo.  Lee isn’t even eligible for re-election. Nonetheless, his mishandling of a proposed defense pact with the old enemy Japan a few weeks before apparently persuaded him to try to reconnect with the voters he had disappointed.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev pulled a similar trick in early July when he visited the disputed Kuril Islands. Like Lee, Medvedev opted to do some damage abroad in order to score some points at home. Russian nationalists applauded his actions; but they didn’t give Japan much confidence that the Putin-Medvedev government is one it can sensibly negotiate with.

Japanese politicians have also been courting their country’s nationalist constituents. Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara has led the way: perhaps inspired by Lee and Medvedev, he is planning to visit the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the near future. His grandstanding will appeal to some right-wing voters, but it will harm Sino-Japanese relations. Ishihara’s initiative to buy the Senkaku islands even forced the central government off to the sidelines: Tokyo, chastened by Ishihara’s criticism, just made a JPY2 billion (2.5 million USD) offer to obtain the islands from their private owners. Naturally, this has upset the Chinese.

Finally, when a Taiwanese fishing boat made a voyage of patriotic protest to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in July, the Taiwanese government took a surprising step: rather than turn a blind eye (as Beijing recently did in a similar case) it decided to take an active part in the escapade, dispatching five coast guard ships to escort the boat on its mission to provoke the Japanese government.

If the Chinese government had resorted to any of the measures described above, it would have met with widespread criticism for acting provocatively and irresponsibly. But in fact, Chinese leaders have displayed more self-control when it comes to sovereignty issues than their counterparts in Japan, Russia, South Korea and Taiwan. Hu, Wen, and other Chinese leaders have to stay on the right side of Chinese nationalism just like their East Asian counterparts; but with no opposition promising to do more, they don’t need to be too accommodating.