Good And Bad Nationalism

12 Nov

Joseph S. Nye and Bill Sakovich are in agreement, roughly: Japanese nationalism is not the problem in East Asia. Nye distinguishes conservative from militaristic nationalism .

While Chinese rhetoric is overheated, there is certainly a rightward shift in mood in Japan, though it would be difficult to describe it as militaristic. A large group of students at Waseda University recently were polled on their attitudes toward the military. While a significant number expressed a desire for Japan to improve its ability to defend itself, an overwhelming majority rejected the idea of developing nuclear arms and supported continued reliance on the US-Japan Security Treaty. As one young professional told me, “we are interested in conservative nationalism, not militaristic nationalism. No one wants to return to the 1930’s.”

And, of course, Japan’s Self Defense Forces are professional and under full civilian control.


Many younger Japanese have told me that they are “fed up” with stagnation and drift. When asked about the rightward trend in politics, some young Diet (parliament) members said they hoped that it might produce a realignment among political parties that would lead to a more stable and effective national government. If a moderate nationalism is harnessed to the yoke of political reform, the results could be good for Japan – and for the rest of the world.

But if Japan’s deepening nationalist mood leads to symbolic and populist positions that win votes at home but antagonize its neighbors, both Japan and the world will be worse off. What happens in Japanese politics over the coming months will ripple far beyond the country’s shores.

Bill Sakovich is a little bit more, ummm, passionate. The point, though, is the same, with the added advantage of punctuating how tall the odds for peaceful compromise are – although there are optimists.

The overseas experts think that nationalism is on the rise throughout East Asia. (It isn’t. This is how the Chinese and Koreans always behave.) They include Japan because some people here have gotten serious about amending the pacifist Constitution to permit self-defense. The Japanese government also bought the Senkaku islets from their private owners to prevent the former Tokyo Metro District governor from buying them and installing a much-needed refuge for fishing boats and a radio antenna.

One can only imagine what they would say if the Japanese behaved as the South Koreans. That would include the indoctrination of school children as in the photo above, and the conduct of international propaganda campaigns that require legal experts to provide cover for their fear they would lose international arbitration.

Or if they behaved as the Chinese do and adopted a policy of the Turn of the Military Screw to grab whatever territory in the region they decide should be theirs.

Somehow, I think it unlikely the bien pensants would have offered their current narrative of false equivalence and neutrality about “territorial disputes”, due to “lingering resentments” in the region. It would be even worse — and more inaccurate, if that’s possible.

Before long, however, we might not have to use our imaginations. A lower house election will be held soon or late, and the odds are that the DPJ, the ruling party that is no longer a functioning political party, will be trounced. The odds also seem to favor their replacement with people who will have something resembling a backbone.

That’s when the handwringing and wailing will really begin overseas. Other than China and the Korean Peninsula, of course — there it’s 24/7, and a matter of official policy.

After framing the diplomatic tensions between China and Japan with the same false equivalence based on nationalism Sakovich finds risible, Christopher R. Hill presents Chinese nationalism in a much-needed critical light.

The problem in China is more serious. China is moving toward another leadership transition, relatively calm by the standards of other powers, where elections sometimes take on the characteristics of political warfare. China’s political rivalries do not play out in televised national debates; rather, they play out in the shadows, leaving the public to guess what the country’s leadership has in store.

As China’s economy slows, the public stirs, and its confidence in nonelected leaders wanes. While some of the criticism calls for more openness and accountability in government, much of it is less inspiring to the rest of us. The critics ask – often in pointed terms – what the government is doing to safeguard the country’s economic interests.

In democratic countries, such critics would group themselves into some kind of political movement, ultimately creating an opposition party that, through the dialectical process of democracy, would influence policymaking by the party in power. China, however, lacks the institutional framework needed to channel this sentiment into the political process. This does not mean that opposition disappears, much less moderates itself; rather, it simmers and incubates – and gathers strength.

(Note: If chankaiyee2’s report is exhaustive, the “internet-based proto-opposition” needs help forming a real opposition.)

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party has no intention of ceding economic nationalism to an Internet-based proto-opposition. After all, rapid economic growth lies at the heart of the CCP’s raison d’état, so it embraces economic nationalism, whether in disputes with Japan, the Southeast Asian countries, or the United States.

China needs to rein in these processes. However it is done (which is for the Chinese to figure out), China has no choice but to embrace a world order based on stable relationships among countries – including its own neighbors. Indeed, whether nationalists like it or not, this is the future that China has, in effect, already chosen. China’s leaders need to stand up and articulate more clearly to the country’s restive public this vision of membership in an interdependent world.

It’s clear Ambassador Hill favors Japan over China, and his optimism about the ameliorative powers of economic interdependence are welcome. Japan has been “around the block”, both throughout the postwar period when it comes to economic downturns and throughout the last two centuries, as it has painfully reformed itself from feudalism to a competitor with the West. This is not to downplay its mistakes. No one in the region is innocent, so judging any state by such self-serving standards is pointless.


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