Will war break out in the seas of East Asia? After Chinese and Japanese nationalists staged competing occupations of the barren landmasses that China refers to as the Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島) and Japan calls the Senkaku Islands, angry demonstrators in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu chanted: “We must kill all Japanese.”
Likewise, a standoff between Chinese and Philippine vessels in the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) in the South China Sea led to protests in Manila. And a long planned step forward in cooperation between South Korea and Japan was torpedoed when the South Korean prime minister visited the barren island that Korea calls Dokdo, Japan calls Takeshima and the US calls the Liancourt Rocks.
One should not be too alarmist. The US has declared that the Senkaku Islands (administered by Okinawa Prefecture when it was returned to Japan in 1972) are covered by the US-Japan security treaty. Meanwhile, the standoff over the Scarborough Shoal has calmed down, and, while Japan recalled its ambassador from South Korea over the Dokdo incident, it is unlikely the two countries would come to blows.
However, it is worth recalling that China used lethal force to expel Vietnamese from the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) in 1974 and 1988. And China prevailed upon the Cambodian host of this year’s ASEAN summit to block a final communique that would have called for a code of conduct in the South China Sea — the first time in the 10-member association’s four-decade history that it failed to issue a communique.
The revival of extreme nationalism in East Asia is both worrisome and understandable. In Europe, while Greeks may grumble about the terms of German backing for emergency financing, the period since World War II has seen enormous progress in knitting countries together. Nothing similar has happened in Asia, and issues dating back to the 1930s and 1940s remain raw, a problem exacerbated by biased textbooks and government policies.
The Chinese Communist Party is not very communist anymore. Instead, it bases its legitimacy on rapid economic growth and ethnic Han nationalism. Memories of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and Japanese aggression in the 1930s are politically useful and fit within a larger theme of Chinese victimization by imperialist forces.
Some US defense analysts view China’s maritime strategy as being clearly aggressive. They point to increasing defense expenditures and the development of missile and submarine technology designed to cordon off the seas extending from China’s coast to “the first island chain” of Taiwan and Japan.
Others, however, see a Chinese strategy that is confused, contradictory and paralyzed by competing bureaucratic interests. They point to the negative results of China’s more assertive policies since the economic crisis of 2008. Indeed, China’s policies have damaged its relations with nearly all of its neighbors.
Consider the Senkaku incident in 2010, when, after Japan arrested the crew of a Chinese trawler that had rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel, China escalated its economic reprisals. The result, as one Japanese analyst put it, was that “China scored an own goal,” immediately reversing what had been a favorable trend in bilateral relations under the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. More generally, while China spends billions of yuan in efforts to increase its soft power in Asia, its behavior in the South China Sea contradicts its own message.