Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Nationalism and Disputes in Asia

The story of present-day Asia, we are often told, is dominated by the rise of China. Some countries, like the Philippines and Vietnam, are concerned by China's expanding power and its willingness to flex its muscles in the region; some, like Cambodia, are friends with China; and still others, like Indonesia, prefer to stay neutral, opting for strategic flexibility. But what's often neglected is that this story is shaped and molded by a host of factors. And it's not simply a function of inter-state power relations or aggressive moves by China. Those things matter, sure, but there are intra-state factors that also matter.

One such intra-state factor is nationalism. In short, Asian nationalism has reared its head lately in several instances, profoundly impacting relations between countries in the region. Let's look at a few examples.

Japan and South Korea have squabbled over two islets, known as Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese, which both countries claim as their own. Making matters worse, South Korea has put on hold a proposed agreement with Japan to share military intelligence. Tensions between Japan and China are on the rise over over competing claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. And as July's deadlocked Asean Ministerial Meeting attests, Vietnam and the Philippines are clearly agitated at China's increasingly assertive claims to territory and waterways in the south china sea. In fact, Vietnam and China have been engaging in a tit-for-tat escalation of tensions. As The Guardian points out, "Beijing, which lays claim to the whole South China Sea, recently upset Hanoi after the government-backed China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) said it was seeking bids for oil exploration in what Hanoi deems Vietnamese waters, while Hanoi increased tensions last month by adopting a law claiming sovereignty over the Spratly Islands."

Of course, a part of these tensions and disputes is rooted in the dynamics of government to government ties and competitiveness, which in turn is a function of scarcity (of material resources), power relations, diplomacy, and state interactions, among many other things.

But another part has everything do with ideas of sovereignty, fierce attachment to the nation, national history, and national identity. In short, nationalism. Arguably, the recent spike in tensions over the summer months has been largely aided and abetted by nationalist fervor. I don't doubt some, perhaps many, governments in Asia, empowered by their rising economic and diplomatic standing in the world, are feeling increasingly confident, so much that they are more willing to defend and at times advance nationalist views and claims. But even more importantly, bottom-up nationalism has manifested in public protests, public criticism and anger. This has only inflamed extant tensions in Asia and added pressure on Asian governments not to look weak, back down, or compromise, making it more difficult to resolve inter-state disputes.

Such nationalist outcry has surfaced in China, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Some of this sentiment and fervor has been directed at China, just as we would expect given the country's rapid rise and concerns within the region that Beijing harbors acquisitive, power-hungry motives. But keep in mind that some nationalist protest and clamor has also targeted other countries in Asia. 

As tensions between China and Japan have ratcheted up during the last several months, nationalist emotion and zeal on both sides has been on the rise, even surfacing in public actions. Activists from Hong Kong attempted to visit a contested islet in the East China Sea, one claimed by both China and Japan, but were arrested and subsequently deported by Japan. In response, ten Japanese activists, including Japanese politicians, via a flotilla of 100 boats, arrived in the same area. Some of them left their boats and swam ashore, raising a Japanese flag. As you might expect, this defiant act had repercussions.

China's foreign ministry sharply criticized Tokyo, and protests emerged in "the southern city of Shenzhen.... Qingdao, Taiyuan and Hangzhou also saw protests, while smaller ones took place in several more cities across China, from far northern Harbin to south-western Chengdu. But it's not the extent of the protests that proved alarming, it was their destructiveness and hate-mongering. According to Scott Harold, "The kinds of ultra-nationalistic hate-fests that have taken place across the country – where protesters have carried banners proclaiming 'Even if China is covered with graves, we must kill all Japanese!', have smashed Japanese-branded automobiles and storefronts, and even attacked a car carrying Tokyo’s ambassador in Beijing – show levels of anger and lawlessness...." 

These anti-Japanese views and actions, in turn, as Harold points out, have triggered "counter-demonstrations in Japan and an effort by Tokyo to consolidate central government control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, currently owned by private Japanese citizens."

Let's turn to the spat between China and Vietnam. Per Peter Enav of the AP: "China has also been at loggerheads with Vietnam, particularly after Beijing's formal creation of a municipality headquartered on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands, long a bone of contention between the two nations." And there's more. Per The Guardian: "Beijing, which lays claim to the whole South China Sea, recently upset Hanoi after the government-backed China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) said it was seeking bids for oil exploration in what Hanoi deems Vietnamese waters, while Hanoi increased tensions last month by adopting a law claiming sovereignty over the Spratly Islands."

Yes, Hanoi was upset, but so were some of the Vietnamese people. On three different occasions, hundreds of citizens protested in the streets of Hanoi, stopping traffic as they held banners and signs and Vietnamese flags and chanted "The Spratly and Paracel Islands belong to Vietnam!" and "Down with Chinese aggression!". But much like their counterparts in China, Vietnamese activists find themselves in a precarious position. Authoritarian Vietnam is reluctantly willing to tolerate public political displays as long they coincide with the party line and are peaceful, but once they challenge state authority, all bets are off. And over the last few months, as reports indicate, a number of Vietnamese activists and bloggers, particularly those human rights activists who have been critical of state land grabs and police violence, have been harassed and detained.

China has even been the target of nationalist fervor from the Philippines. The Scarborough Shoal dispute, involving clashing maritime vassels from china and the philippines and which led to a diplomatic standoff (between the Philippines, Vietnam, and Cambodia) at July's Asean Ministerial Meeting, gave rise to a thousand-strong protest at the Chinese Embassy in Manila back in May. Al-Jazeera described the protests accordingly:   

"Our protest is directed at the overbearing actions and stance of the government in Beijing, which behaves like an arrogant overlord, even in the homes of its neighbours," said rally organiser Loida Nicholas Lewis.
The protesters carried placards that read: "China stop bullying the Philippines", "Make Peace Not War", and "China, Stop Poaching in Philippine Waters".
China...warned its citizens that they were not safe in the Philippines and urged those in the country to stay indoors and stay away from demonstrations.

Meantime, in South Korea, news of an intelligence sharing deal with Japan provoked widespread dismay and anger. Per a CNN report, here's an example of their views on the proposed deal:

"This is clearly a deception," said Kim Hwan-young, the head of Korean Veterans for Peace. "I am angry at the fact that our government pushed the deal ignoring the national sentiment. We were colonized by Japan for more than three decades and we also suffered separation and civil war because of Japan."
Another important factor here centers on the belief among many South Koreans that the negotiations with Japan were done in secret, behind their backs and without their input. In their view, this kind of a deal is antithetical to a supposedly open and free democratic country; it's a violation of existing democratic rules and norms. This is why South Koreans now want (1) a full airing and vetting of the specifics of the negotiations and of the deal itself and (2) officials to be held accountable for their actions.

On top of this issue, there is the tense dispute over the contested islets. On this front, lots of different actors have played a rather unproductive role. In a surprising move, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, viewed widely as a pragmatist (even by Japan), visited the rocky area on August 10th, then called for Japan's emperor to apologize for his country's past imperial aggression and violence on the Korean peninsula, which triggered harsh criticism from japan. In fact, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda sent a letter to South Korea to register his government's protest, but South Korea's president refused to accept it and returned the letter without comment, with the foreign ministry claiming the letter contained "inaccuracies." Japan has proposed settling the dispute at the UN, via its International Court of Justice, but South Korea has rejected this option.

Against this backdrop is a groundswell of South Korean nationalism. The rocky islets are viewed as a source of national pride, a powerful reminder of South Korea's independence from colonial rule under Japan. How important is it to South Korea? Takashi Yokota writes:

Since 2005, when Seoul began allowing tourists onto the islets, visits—pilgrimages, some say—have become hugely popular. Last year alone, some 180,000 people made the arduous trip. In 2010, civic groups, together with the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations, declared Oct. 25 to be Dokdo Day, an annual occasion for teaching the nation’s schoolchildren to love the remote island outpost. (Japan’s Shimane Prefecture celebrates a Takeshima Day). Broadcasters go so far as reporting on the weather there, and some television stations end their daily broadcasts with a video clip of Dokdo as the national anthem plays. 
Activists and political organizers have been holding “Dokdo awareness” events around South Korea. At a July gathering in Seoul promoting corporate social responsibility, small children were encouraged to write “I love Dokdo” on cookies. And after Lee’s August visit, a group of singers, actors, and college students braved the strong currents and made a 220-kilometer relay swim to the rocks.
But that's not all, as South Korean anger has bubbled to the surface. Voice of America stated that "hundreds of South Korean protesters staged a rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul...denouncing Japan's claim to the islands. Activist (sic) pumped their fists, chanted anti-Japan slogans and wore headbands emblazoned with words defending South Korea's claim over the string of islands." Added to this dangerous mix, by playing to the wave nationalist fervor, South Korean newspapers have already begun banging the drumbeats of war, going so far as to speculate on the potential for military conflict between the two disputants.

More ominously, on September 7, South Korea's military entered the fray, as its coast guard staged a drill around the contested islets. Japan had asked South Korea not to hold the drill. The silver lining here is that South Korea scaled back a bit the planned drill. According to a report from the Voice of America: "The coast guard led the exercise but South Korea's marines did not, as had been originally planned, land on any of the Liancourt Rocks."

Now, let's take a step back and digest these all of these turbulent events in Asia. Here's my quick take: we often think of nationalism as a tool used by tyrannical and despotic governments to bolster their legitimacy. There are many examples of this. Just think about contemporary China and North Korea.

But consider this: as countries in the region open themselves up, even if only in baby steps, their governments, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, naturally offer their citizens more points of access to express their interests, demands, and grievances. As this process unfolds, citizens become increasingly emboldened to wedge open that crack even further, seeking out all available means that enable them to do so. And they begin to discuss and critique publicly a growing number of issues, even those sensitive to the state. This is what we are seeing nowadays in China and Vietnam--where the state and society are in constant tension with each other--with activists taking to the streets to express their discontent on a host of domestic and foreign political issues.

But there's something else going on as well, a particular quirk of the globalization era that seemingly cuts across all countries, whether free or closed, East or West. In short, though economic and political interdependence and technological innovations, globalization allows for closer and more frequent contact among people worldwide. But empirical evidence suggests that closer contact doesn't erase political boundaries, as had been hoped by liberal scholars and politicians. It actually reinforces and hardens them. In other words, in this era of globalization, people are becoming more nationalistic, identifying more strongly with their home countries.

This logic applies to Asia, where there are lots of countries in constant contact with each other (via tourism, business linkages, trade, diplomacy, international organizations, and so on), yet solidly entrenched national political identities. Indeed, despite attempts to forge cohesion and unity across Asia (especially in southeast Asia and Asia-Pacific), nationalism runs higher than ever. As we might expect, Asians detest foreign countries, particularly those from within the region, attempting to encroach on their home country's turf, tradition, values, and history. Historical rivalries, pivotal events (regional wars, colonialism), and differences in political cultures help to ensure that this remains a fact of life.

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