Role of nationalism in Sino-Japanese relations

Role of nationalism in Sino-Japanese relations

People’s Daily – Scholars from both China and Japan have called for rational nationalism in both countries to foster a better relationship between the two neighboring countries.

Experts and scholars from China, Japan, the US, South Korea and Sweden have participated in a workshop organized by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Stockholm. They mainly discussed the role of nationalism in Sino-Japanese relations.

What is nationalism?

Professor Yu Tiejun from the School of International Studies at Peking University listed outbreaks of nationalistic sentiment that have occurred in China in recent years, analyzed the reasons behind them and talked about why Japan was targeted.

He rejected mainstream Western thought that Chinese nationalism is purely an instrument of the Communist Party of China, used to serve its own domestic and foreign policy goals. He said current Chinese nationalism is largely spontaneous, with internet and mobile phones the main organizational tools. It’s outspoken, emotional, radical and often exaggerated and biased, rather than rational. It is devoid of systematic thought, and results from a mass group mentality in society.

The Professor said that China is in the process of democratization and unlike the charismatic Chinese leadership in the past, China’s foreign policy makers are now more responsive to domestic opinions, especially on those issues related to fundamental foreign policies.

“China is changing. Now neither the Party nor the government can ignore the grassroots voices, especially those speaking out against Japan, the main target of modern Chinese nationalism owing to its aggression towards China during the first half of the 20th century.”

Professor Suisheng Zhao is the Executive Director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at the Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver in the US.

He said that the nationalism in China is liberal nationalism. For historical, geopolitical and economic reasons, Japan has always occupied a central place in China’s nationalist sentiments.

Sense and sensibility

Professor Suisheng Zhao thinks that although Chinese nationalism is more radical and emotional, the Chinese government is very rational and has tried everything possible to channel nationalist expression into peaceful activities. This has much to do with the principles and knowledge of the Chinese leaders, who know that China’s economic success depends heavily upon integration with the outside world and particularly upon cooperative relations with advanced Western countries, including Japan. The principles of peaceful-co-existence, peaceful orientation, peaceful rise and peaceful development are emphasized as China rises to the status of a great power.

Professor Zhao said that the Chinese government has always looked for opportunities to improve its relationship with Japan, thus Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s China visit was warmly welcomed by Chinese leaders.

He also noted that the rise of nationalism has not greatly affected Chinese foreign policy in Japan. He said that as a result of reform and opening up, Chinese leaders have become far more accountable to public opinion. The average Chinese is plugged into the information network by phone and internet, and has found ways to express his or her views, which include nationalist sentiment.

Professor Yu Tiejun cited measures taken by the Chinese government to rationalize nationalism. This included a report given by Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing on Sino-Japanese relations to an audience of more than 3500 elites in the Great Hall of the People on April 19, 2005. The main idea of the report was that it is in China’s national interest to keep Sino-Japanese relations stable and healthy. Li’s report was estimated to reach an audience of 200 million in China through television broadcasting.

Changes to Japan’s policy-making

Professor Koji Murata from the Department of Political Science at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, said there have been a lot of changes to the way Japan drafts its policy on China. He said that “older pro-China politicians such as Nonaka Hiromu have lost their influence while the experienced China school under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has a deep knowledge of China, was not utilized in policy making under Koizumi Junichiro”.

He said, “Japanese nationalism is very much due to Chinese behavior in international relations, the diversification of Japanese society and domestic political and economic frustrations in Japan.”

He said that in recent years, the Japanese policy-making process towards China has become increasingly decentralized and fragmented. “The Japanese public, politicians and bureaucrats are often sharply divided over issues related to China. Probably the Chinese government can no longer find reliable allies in the Japanese state and society,” said Professor Koji Murata. “It is likely to be difficult for China to predict the Japanese reaction to China’s policies towards Japan due to an increasing diversity in values and interests within the Japanese state and society.”

Nonetheless, socio-economic interactions between the two countries are growing stronger.

More importantly, younger people in both countries are, in general, becoming more and more pragmatic and flexible, even if they are sometimes outspoken and emotional.

Bilateral cooperation is essential for regional stability

Profession Koji Murata said Japan-China cooperation is essential for regional stability in Asia. It is necessary for Japan, for example to cooperate with China in order to address the North Korean issue.

He thinks the strategic importance of China for the US and Japan has increased. He said that Beijing’s successful negotiations to establish Free Trade Agreements with Southeast Asian countries and its assertive access to natural resources in Africa and other areas, has made Tokyo anxious to catch up. The increasing trade deficit between China and the US has made Washington, especially Congress, impatient. The rise of China, whether real or imagined, is and will continue to be a concern for Japan and the United States.

Profession Koji Murata thinks the lack of a stable party system and a more diverse society in Japan will be a challenge to Tokyo’s policy formulation towards Beijing. He said that so far, new Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s strategy of ambiguity on the Yasukuni issue has worked. The Prime Minister has not yet made clear whether or not he will visit the shrine, but his China policy will be seriously questioned and tested by both the Japanese public and China after the Upper House election in July this year.

He said there was some suggestion in Japan of setting up a separate site for WWII war dead, in order to resolve the Yasukuni Shrine problem, but it was not taken up by the former government. He can’t see the new cabinet taking up this option either.

The Japanese professor said Chinese people should consider more closely post-war bilateral development. Many Chinese scholars suggest that China should recognize Japan’s role in China’s economic development, as well as look at the huge bilateral trade and history prior to the war.

Nationalism is a double-edged sword

Professor Yu Tiejun said nationalism is a double-edged sword. Those who are good at wielding it will benefit; those who are not risk hurting themselves. He said that it is the work of both countries to foster open, moderate and rational nationalism. He suggested that both nations try to foster a benign domestic environment, which means maintaining political stability, ensuring economic development and improving social justice. Facts show that those who have a tendency towards violence are mostly unemployed.

Bilateral cooperation should be strengthened in mutually beneficial fields such as environment protection, energy, trade, finance, information technology and crisis management. More institutions and mechanisms should be established to push forward cooperation and make it resilient to the shock of popular nationalism.

The voices of China and Japan’s neighbors should also be listened to closely, especially if those voices are discordant or are likely to stimulate aggressive nationalism. Both nations should reflect on their own actions and think about what is proper for better relations. More accurate information is needed and the communication network should be strengthened.

It is good to see that both nations have taken action and that historians are opting to co-write history books about the 1930s and 40s.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has accepted an invitation from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to visit Japan in April. People hope that all these measures will help put Sino-Japanese relations onto a neighborly and friendly track. It is in the interest of China, Japan, Asia and the world, that a healthy and steady relationship exists between the two countries.

It appears nationalism in the PRC is the result of Chinese citizens becoming more informed and having the means to exchanges ideas with like-minded individuals. It may be true that communist education may have stimulated such emotional nationalism, but ultimately individuals have enough freedom to make their own choices about whether to assemble, exchange ideas, and how to express their views in a changing China. Fortunately, the CCP actually takes into account the grassroots nationalism in a rising China and feels that stable ties are the best way to continue their economic and social progress in a globalised world.

Japan on the other hand, is divided in their dealings with China and are also experiencing a level of nationalism. Like China, Japanese nationalism is also developing in the grassroots among individuals through clubs, anonymous forums, and observations of Chinese sentiment towards Japan. At the same time, the government, bureaucrats, and Japanese citizens seem to be divided on how to deal with this rising non-democratic neighbour with relatively unpleasant shared history. Abe seems to be more focused on rebuilding stable Sino-Japanese ties that were reduced to what resembled a Japanese train wreck by taking actions to show he means business. At the same time, anti-Chinese sentiment is growing in response to perceived racist anti-Japanese sentiment and China’s disruption of the status quo that was once enjoyed by Japan.

In any event, both Japan and China will have to work together or become divided at the expense of mutual progress.

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