After reading an interesting post that defends China’s position in the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute, I began to think about this subject from a different perspective. In fact, I’ve always believed that the Japanese were right. But can there really be right and wrong in such issues?
The reality is that the disputes that exist today in Asia are the consequence of two hundred years of Western-shaped nationalism and of a post-colonial narrative of modernization and “national rejuvenation”. Xi Jinping’s talk of the rejuvenation of the nation is, interestingly enough, very similar to what Guomindang’s leader Chiang Kai-shek called “Revitalization of China” (振興中華).
For millions of people in Asia, Western domination meant that they were second-class world citizens. That they were weak, backward, at the mercy of foreign military and economic power. The Western discourse of modernity deprived them of their pride and forced them to see themselves as “disciples” of the powerful West.
One can observe in all Asian countries that were threatened by the West a similar pattern of nation (re-)building. Beginning with Japan, Asian countries established a Western-style nationalism, and they created a narrative of rebirth and self-strengthening that defined itself as a state of emergency caused by the sudden change in Asian peoples’ worldview: from the traditional East Asian hierarchy of nations with China as the centre, the world became a chaotic place full of threats and enemies. The focus of the modernization and “catch-up” narrative thus lay on material progress. Because material progress means power, and power means “freedom from foreign aggressors”.
One can observe this in the “Little Dragon” Taiwan, where people learnt to define their identity – and their alleged superiority over and diversity from mainlanders – in terms of economic success. Modernization has been a process of convergence between state and people for the purpose of rapid industrialization, in which all human, technical and political resources have been channelled into the mission of achieving material and spiritual progress. In this way, aggressive export policies were enhanced, and the people were told to sacrifice themselves, devote all their strength to working hard, saving money, keeping quiet (trade union power is marginal and working conditions as well as salaries lag far behind the productivity of these countries).
Nationalism has been a key component of this narrative. Just like the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, during which France (at that time the richest and most populous continental power in Europe) asserted its dominance, sparked a strong nationalistic reaction in the countries that the French had conquered and devastated, the wars of the past two centuries have given Asians the awareness of their own weakness. In a world of national states, nationalism, with its ideological potential of mass mobilization, served as a major political factor in the modernization of Asia. The education system has been a precious vehicle of this state ideology, because history can easily flare up the people, especially if history is taught simplistically.
Let’s remember how Europe was until World War II. A number of states had been fighting each other for centuries, and even today, during the economic crisis, it’s easy to detect the power of national ideology in Europe, both in the relation between states and in that between locals and immigrants. The only thing that has – hopefully – been entirely overcome in Europe, are major territorial disputes.
The arguments with which the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (ROC) and Japan justify their sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands have as much truth in them as historical and legal evidence may have: that is, an evidence that depends on every state’s own interpretation. They use old maps and legal arguments as proves, but what can old maps prove? Does China expect to convince Japan, however founded China’s claims may be?
If we used the same legal arguments in Europe we would go back to fighting each other. Just look at a map from the last century, and you’ll see that the potential for territorial dispute is huge. The problem is: an issue in which emotions weigh more than rational arguments and in which both parties are right from their own perspective, is hard, if not impossible to solve.
After World War II, Germany has accepted a loss of 1/3 of its national territory. Italy has lost territories, Great Britain has lost a whole empire. Losing a piece of land is actually not the end of the world. In the national ideology of the 19th century, a nation is like an organism, and its territory as an integral part of it cannot be severed without destroying the organism. Only after a catastrophic war did European powers come to terms with territorial losses. The precondition of the peace that followed the war, however, was the complete destruction of the continent, which made it clear to the majority of the people that when nation fight each other, no one wins. Asian nations have a different historical experience. China won WWII, but in reality, they feel as though they’d never won. That’s probably because the USA treated China as a minor power and didn’t let Chinese represent the interests of their country. Giving the Diaoyu islands to Japan upset both the Communist and the KMT government. But Japan was an ally of the US, and it was Asia’s only economic powerhouse for decades. Neither the US nor Japan predicted that China would rise, and so they missed their opportunity of deepening their friendship with the country and solve the most critical disputes. Now that China is more powerful it is to late to redress the wrong done.
The PRC and Japan will both try to get their own way. It’s hard to believe that they will sit down, talk and find a compromise. Which country would ever accept a loss of territory? These small islands are not vital for the two nations, but they are vital for the definition of their national pride and identity. Like the conflict between Israel and Palestine, every step might cause nationalist feelings to flare up.
In this respect, the West should better abstain from intervention. The United States have already secured their backing of Japan. In my view, this wasn’t a wise choice. People like to compare every armed conflict with the last world war, saying: “If we had intervened earlier, this wouldn’t have happened!” But you can’t compare every single conflict with the world war and every authoritarian state with Nazi Germany. Just like Stalin wasn’t Hitler and the USA fought at his side against the German dictator, and just like Gorbachev was very different from Stalin, so today’s China is way more liberal and less authoritarian than any dictatorship of the past, except probably for the last decades of KMT’s rule on Formosa. If the regional conflict between the two Asian giants should arise, the best possible solution would be to remain neutral, mediate, try to find a reasonable settlement. But we cannot meddle in a conflict that is per se a consequence of two centuries of war, nationalism and hatred, of which the West has been, directly or indirectly, a cause.