In his magisterial account of the role of culture in international relations, American academic Richard New Lebow argues that rationality is just one of the factors (and is actually one of the weakest) involved when countries engage with each other. If nations were rational actors, history would have been quite different. Since time immemorial, countries have engaged in reckless wars and destructive behavior utterly at odds with what we would assume to be rational.
This is because honor, fear, and logic also play a part in international relations. Of these, honor is the least understood but amongthe most powerful factors. We underestimate it at our peril.
Modern Chinese leaders have broad domestic appeal when speaking about China’s honor and its newfound prestige and status. Many Chinese citizens might detest their government—not unlike other discontented citizens across the globe—but they have a profound emotional bond to their land, culture, and sense of identity. The Chinese dream of its regenerated status is a powerful one, and Chinese politicians would be fools not to appeal to it.
Foreigners would similarly be making a great mistake if they tried to create a highly rational model for how China will behave. In its recent relations with Japan, it has everything to gain – investment, technology, regional influence – from working with its neighbor. But the unwise remarks of a single Japanese Minister can create profound anger in China, and it would seem this anger is influencing Sino-Japanese relations more than rationality.
China is now a great power, and it is often debated whether it will be a status quo or revisionist one. But what we rarely see are discussions on how it is an “emotional” power. Any analysis of Chinese diplomacy that leaves out the powerful role of emotion fails to capture the whole story. The somewhat inhuman, impersonal, and highly calculated façade of the agents, institutions and actors of China’s international relations mask the central role of emotion – but it is undeniably there.
We already have “political maps” of the world where countries are colored according to their governance systems. What we need now in the 21st century are “emotional” maps of the world to show which places harbor national memories of anger. Australia, Europe, and North America would rank lower on the anger scale than a country like China. China’s anger stems from its history and from its irritation of not being acknowledged as a great power. Even though China has acquired a higher economic status, rival countries like Japan continue to slight it. Despite Japan’s multiple apologies to China for its historical aggression, it has never been sufficient because of China’s anger and mistrust of Japan. For every apology, China detects in its neighbor a condescending attitude which prevents both nations from seeking a resolution.
Since 1949 Chinese leaders have gone through phases of being brutal practitioners of power politics under Mao and highly pragmatic outcome-focused politics under Deng Xiaoping, and under Hu Jintao, technocratic politics predominated — that is, the goal was to achieve high GDP growth and everything else will be solved afterward.
Xi Jinping is willingly introducing emotion into Chinese domestic and international politics in ways that Hu never countenanced. The impact of this might be explosive. It seems that Japan’s leaders are not well-equipped to deal with this intelligently and subtly, considering Shinzo Abe’s lack of tact when expressing his opinions on China’s actions. Like it or not, the world’s great final arbiter of emotional clashes – the United States – will have to mediate and encourage restraint. But admitting that Japan and China’s dispute is as much about emotions as territory helps us understand the nature of the dispute, and that is the first step towards solving it.