By Eric Vandenbroeck 18 Jan. 2018
In my article about the recent standoff between India and China I mentioned that Beijing could be replicating its approach in the South China Sea. A few days ago a Chinese nuclear attack submarine surfaced near Japan northwest of the disputed Senkaku Islands and hoisted the Chinese flag which comes just days after four China Coast Guard vessels entered Japanese territorial waters.
This while shortly before, on 3 January, news reports emerged in India that China had crossed 200 meters into Indian territory near the Doklam plateau, and the Head of the Indian Army General Bipin Rawat said bilateral bonhomie had returned to the same level that existed before the 73-day troop faceoff in the region last year. According to AllSource Analysis, also imagery of the Chinese air bases near Lhasa and Shigatse shows a significant presence of fighter aircraft and a notable increase in helicopters, as well as deployments of KJ-500 airborne early warning and command aircraft, components of the HQ-9 long-range surface-to-air missile system and Soar Dragon unmanned aerial vehicles at Shigatse Peace Airport. The Chinese made a number of major airfield upgrades at Shigatse a new runaway was constructed by mid-December, nine aircraft aprons measuring 41 meters by 70 meters were built along the main taxiway and eight helipads were set up in the northeast corner of the airfield. This construction, along with the deployment of new equipment in greater numbers, highlights how China has undertaken a serious effort to improve its capabilities close to the disputed Line of Actual Control.
Not gone unnoticed by China observers all of this comes around the time of a 15 Febr. report where the Chinese Communist Party emphasized its expanding global ambitions; in a remarkable 5,500 character treatise on the front page of Monday's "People's Daily.
We have known for some time that Global power is shifting to Asia to which Europe and the USA have no choice but to adapt to that. What this article will try to do is clarify the less known aspects of a unique present-day nationalism among the Chinese people, as a result of which, many Chinese believe today that a strong China reclaiming their core interests in Asia should be compatible with a China engaging in the liberal international order at the global level.
Last October, China’s Xi Jinping delivered the most consequential speech since Mikhail Gorbachev stepped before cameras to formally dissolve the Soviet Union. Addressing the Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress, Xi made clear that China is ready to claim its share of global leadership. The implications of this step are global.
Xi Jinping’s repeated promise “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” likely will lead the PRC to be much more assertive in foreign policy as it sees increasing opportunities to capitalize on the vacuum and discord created by Trump’s “America First” policies.
Already in an earlier study about racist discourse in communist China, I pointed out that Nationalism was the first principle of Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People, and both the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have adopted it. Already in the wake of the abortive Hundred Days Reform of 1898, which ended when the empress dowager rescinded all the reform decrees and executed several reformer officials, a number of radical intellectuals started advocating the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty.
While the Han-centric narrative considers the Manchu to be the historical culprit, as pointed out before, other ethnic groups in the country today are also seen as threats to China’s reawakening, particularly those that challenge Han or Sinocentric traditions and resist acculturation.
And although Mao Zedong in March 1953 still referred to "Han chauvinism" to criticize his rival Kuomintang party, this drastically changed following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown when history and memory were developed to become a new nationalistic power.
China's New Nationalism
To understand where the present-day re-invented Han nationalism in China comes from we have to understand that during the 20th century, the Chinese Communist Party utilized first communism and then Han centered patriotism to mobilize the population.
After the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when the most serious challenge for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1980s was a crisis of faith in socialism, crisis of belief in Marxism, and crisis of trust in the party. When the official Communist ideology lost credibility, the Communist regime became incapable of enlisting mass support behind a socialist vision of the future. There was a spiritual vacuum resulting from decades of communist repression of both traditional and Western belief systems. Under these circumstances, some intellectuals, particularly the younger generation of intellectuals, turned to Western liberal ideas and called for Western style democratic reform. The belief and faith crises finally evolved into a pro-democracy movement and eventually led to the large-scale Tiananmen demonstration in the spring of 1989. These crises became even more evident following the international collapse of the communist ideology itself. China's communist rulers feared that, in the mind of ordinary Chinese, they had already lost the "mandate of heaven" to rule china.
Where during the 1980's, largely due to the relatively liberal political environment and the policies of reform-minded top leadership, Chinese nationalism had a moderate orientation, this changed following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown when history and memory were developed to become a new power. Thus as seen, the ruling elites identified nationalism as a critical source of legitimacy and subsequently implemented a systematic and highly effective program of reconstructing Chinese nationalism.
The centerpiece of the post-1989 state-sponsored revival of Chinese nationalism was the so-called patriotic education campaign, a comprehensive program that revamped history textbooks, reconstructed national narratives, and renovated historical sites and symbols throughout China. The sole purpose of this program was to rekindle the Chinese population’s sense of national humiliation and, consequently, their antipathy toward the West. The “patriotic education campaign” achieved remarkable success in reawakening the most parochial and xenophobic strains in Chinese nationalism. Through official propaganda and a distorted historical narrative, the CCP was able to convince large segments of the Chinese population that the West would not want to see a powerful and prosperous China. Periodically, the official propaganda apparatus would go into overdrive whenever there were international incidents in which China was apparently disrespected or poorly treated. A first example that we have previously analyzed was the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. Other examples are the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO during the Kosovo war in 1999, and the midair crash between a Chinese fighter jet and an American navy reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea in 2001.Of course, American responsibility in some of these made it easier for the Chinese regime to convince their population that the United States harbored hostile intent toward China. For instance, Washington attributed intelligence failure to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. This might be true, but it sounded unconvincing to the average Chinese, who firmly believed that the United States, the world’s most advanced country, was incapable of making such dumb mistakes.
Deng Xiaoping’s strategy meanwhile was the redefinition of the “one-hundred year history of humiliation” as a new source of legitimacy of the CCP’s rule and the unity of the Chinese people and society.(1).
Besides the enormous investment of its resources in its nationalist project, the CCP was significantly aided by other factors. Externally, the 1990s was a decade during which the West made a moderate attempt to pressure China to improve its human rights record through the threat of sanctions. Despites its good intentions, this policy unfortunately backfired, because the CCP seized upon the West’s threat of sanctions as evidence that the West, in particular the United States, wanted to prevent China from becoming a powerful country. Such propaganda resonated with the Chinese public. In the 1990s, the burgeoning pro-independence movement in Taiwan, championed by President Lee Teng-hui, also allowed the CCP to exploit Chinese nationalism because of the Chinese people’s deep emotional attachment to Taiwan as “part of China.” The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was, in retrospect, a fortuitous event for the CCP, even though the Chinese ruling elites were initially shocked by the fall of the Soviet regime. The ensuing chaos in postcollapse Russia and some of the former Soviet republics was played up by the Chinese official media and cited as evidence of the dangers of democratic transition. The message the Chinese authorities tried to convey was clear: only the CCP could protect China’s national integrity and ensure its survival as a great power.
Despite its enormous success in exploiting Chinese nationalism to boost its rule, the CCP runs serious risks and faces uncertainties in the future if it continues to count on the manipulation of nationalism to sustain public support. The most obvious risk is that fueling nationalism at home could severely damage China’s relations with the West, particularly the United States. Economically, xenophobia could antagonize the West, which is China’s most important trading partner. The Western business community may be alienated as well. In the worst-case scenario, nationalism could escalate into protectionism and a trade war between China and its Western trading partners. In the realm of national security, jingoism is likely to lead to hardened public attitudes and domestic political pressures, which could back the Chinese government into a corner during crisis and make conflict more likely. The ongoing dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea is a disturbing illustration. Deliberate manipulation of public opinion, demonization of the Japanese leadership, and bombastic rhetoric by the Chinese government not only led to violent nationwide anti-Japanese riots in 2012 but also drove Beijing to adopt dangerous escalatory measures to demonstrate its resolve, thus creating conditions under which an accidental military clash has become a distinct possibility.(2)
Hugh White has presented a prescription to avoid a strategic clash, arguing for power-sharing between the United States and China across the Pacific.(3) The premise of the argument is concerned again, with Chinese nationalism: China no longer accepts US primacy as the basis of an Asian order. This is an understandable urge of a rising China, whose status should be accepted and respected for the stability of the Asia-Pacific. One conundrum arising from this thesis, however, particularly for China’s immediate neighbors, is whether a strong China rejecting US primacy can be a benign hegemon in Asia. Many Chinese appear to believe so or at least like to argue that it could, but their behavior particularly with regards to territorial disputes toward some of their neighbors tends to convince their neighbors otherwise. In this decidedly realist exposition of the strategic relationship between the United States and China, what is often missing is the examination of the place and role of Chinese neighbors in Asia in the transformation of an Asia order. Obviously, Asian countries stand to be directly impacted by the behaviours of a powerful China.
For example, when Deng Xiaoping started to emphasize patriotism by using modern history as a new source of unity of the Chinese people. Unwittingly, therefore, “Japan came to be embroiled in China’s new quest to promote patriotism amid the struggles for economic reform.” 19 Thus, Michael Yahuda argues that the structural origin of the history problem between Japan and China lies in “changes in the domestic politics of identity within China.” 20 Deng Xiaoping emphasizing patriotism by using modern history as a new source of unity of the Chinese people, unwittingly, therefore, Japan came to be embroiled in China’s new quest to promote patriotism amid the struggles for economic reform. And thus the structural origin of the history problem between Japan and China lies in changes in the domestic politics of identity within China.
Significantly, the Nanjing Memorial, officially named the “Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders,” was opened on August 15, 1985. This was followed by the opening of the “Museum of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression” on July 7, 1987, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. Since the erection of these two major museums, the CCP “began to downplay the civil war in favor of a national war against Japan.” (6) The message of these museums is that of victimization by the Japanese aggressors, which is connected to the overall emphasis on Chinese history of humiliation since the Opium War of 1840– 1842, which resulted in the loss of Hong Kong to the British. (7) On the diplomatic front, China seized the occasion of the Japanese mass media report in June 1982 that the Ministry of Education of Japan instructed a history textbook draft expression of “aggression toward Northeast China” to be changed to “advance toward Northeast China,” in describing the nature of Japanese actions in the 1910s and the 1920s, prior to the establishment of Manchukuo in 1932. After some delay, the Chinese government started extensive campaigns to criticize Japan in Chinese media. The textbook issue had thus become the very first case of the history controversy between Japan and China in the postwar years. In response, the Kiichi Miyazawa cabinet decided to add a “neighborly country clause” to the textbook inspection criteria. In early September, the Chinese government accepted these efforts by Japan, and the issue subsided.(8)
Then came the controversy over the Yasukuni Shrine in the summer of 1985. Until then, almost all prime ministers of postwar Japan had visited the Yasukuni Shrine annually during their tenures. It had never been raised as a diplomatic issue until August 1985, when China, having said nothing about the previous nine visits by Yasuhiro Nakaosne to the Yasukuni Shrine as prime minister, suddenly made a diplomatic issue of his tenth visit, with the logic that this visit was made as an official one. Nakasone compromised diplomatically, and Tokyo and Beijing struck a deal, agreeing to the gentlemen’s agreement that prime minister, foreign minister, and cabinet secretary would not visit the Yasukuni Shrine while in office, but that China would condone the visits by other officials and politicians. (9) The Japanese government thus attempted to deal with the new “history problem” in a conciliatory manner. Perhaps the Chinese leadership was confident that they should be able to control the dual aspects of Deng Xiaoping’s strategy, that is, implanting history as a new source of unity of the Chinese people, underpinning the legitimacy of the CCP rule, and gaining the upper hand against Japan in a moral sense, while advancing cooperation with Japan as an important supporter of Chinese economic modernization and development. In the 1990s, however, Japan started to adjust its security policies to changing security environments in the post-Cold War era in the direction of becoming a “normal” country, as seen below. This phenomenon of “normalizing” Japan then became entangled with the history problem, creating a typical vicious cycle between Japan and China involving popular emotions and domestic politics of both nations. The territorial disputes over the Senkaku (which China calls Diaoyu)
Islands became a symbolic issue aggravating the vicious cycle. When China was in the throes of revolution of the Chinese model under Mao Zedong, the “Senkaku/ Diaoyu” issue was nonexistent. The People’s Daily dated January 8 1953, in its support for the people in Okinawa fighting against the American occupation, defined the Okinawa Archipelago as consisting of seven groups of islands including the Senkaku.(10) Against these backgrounds, for Tokyo, it came entirely out of the blue that China contested the Japanese ownership in December 1971 (Taiwan did so a bit earlier in the late 1960s). Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement said that the “Diaoyu” islands had been part of Taiwan since “ancient times,” thus claiming the Chinese sovereignty for the first time in history. (11) In the meantime, Deng Xiaoping said in 1978 that he would wish the future generation to handle the issue wisely, but in 1992, China announced the territorial law designating “Diaoyu” as Chinese territory. This was an attempt at virtually changing the status quo, but Japan did not respond with any countermeasures, and China did not take any further actions.
However, Japan stands at the nexus of the dualism associated with the rise of China in two fundamental ways. Firstly, Japan used to be, and arguably still is, a major facilitator of China’s continuous engagement in the liberal international order, and simultaneously on the forefront of the geopolitical challenge by China over the “Senkaku/ Diaoyu” dispute. Secondly, the outcome of this geopolitical challenge will have a decisive impact on the future of a security order in the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, as an ultimate scenario, if China succeeds in getting the Senkaku Islands without US involvement, this would virtually mean the realization of the Chinese dream of establishing “a new model of major power relations” across the Pacific.
For example, just during the last few days, Japan lodged a protest with China after a Chinese military’s submarine surfaced in international waters northwest of the disputed Senkaku Islands on the afternoon of Jan. 12 and hoisted the Chinese flag.
The incident comes just days after four China Coast Guard vessels entered Japanese territorial waters around the disputed islets. While incursions into Japan’s contiguous zone and territorial sea around the Senkakus are fairly common for Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels and civilian fishing trawlers, incursions by Chinese naval vessels are comparatively rare.
This was followed by the news that the Chinese naval submarine noticed in waters near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands and raised a Chinese flag was a nuclear-powered attack submarine. With a day later additional notice that Chinese submarine near Senkakus ignored warnings. With the Japanese coast guard saying that on Monday three additional Chinese patrol ships have entered Japanese territorial waters off the Senkaku Islands in the 2nd such intrusion this year. Last week’s incident and Monday’s incursion in the East China Sea raises tensions between China and Japan shortly after an improvement in ties in late-2017.
In its newly released National Defense Strategy, the Pentagon openly described Beijing as a “strategic competitor”, which is “using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea.” The document accuses Beijing of “seek[ing] Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”
In 2010, Chinese commentators began to describe the South China Sea as one of China’s “core interests,” on a par with Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet. China was clearly on the offensive even in the East China and Yellow seas. Occasionally rather difficult incidents occurred that fired up public opinion in China, Japan, and the other countries involved. Defense forces were strengthened. The issues involved not only ownership of the islands, but also control over sea lanes and potentially large reserves of oil, natural gas, and fish. China showed little willingness to compromise on these issues; neither did most of the other states involved. The United States had no firm opinion on the territorial issues involved, but insisted on open shipping lanes, here as elsewhere. Confrontations can easily escalate. There is no guarantee that diplomatic solutions will be found.(12)
There thus also is a debate regarding the theoretical implications of the rise of China. The debate is essentially about the major themes and trends in the transformation of the world order, that is, between realism anticipating a geopolitical clash between a declining hegemon and an ascending power,(13) and liberalism emphasizing the durability of the US-led liberal international order and the likelihood of China to be accommodated in it.(14)
Evelyn Goh argues that the United States will remain a dominant power in East Asia in the foreseeable future, and what is happening in the region is not a power transition but “an order transition,” where the US hegemonic order is being renegotiated.(15) If so, “middle power” cooperation among the China’s neighbors may not be sustainable without the continuous role of the United States as the backbone of stability in the Asia-Pacific region.
In addressing the question of the rise of China in the policy area the discussions tend to fluctuate between the realist prognosis and the liberal theorization. For instance, it has become a cliché to say that the Chinese ascendance has dual and contradictory aspects, that is, sources of security instability and economic prosperity. The role of the United States is also characterized by dualism, that is, as being the most powerful superpower in the world and yet also a declining power in relative terms. The strategic relationship between China and the United States, therefore, has been complex, fluctuating between hopes and despairs, cooperation and conflict.
In the eyes of the Chinese, however, there is perhaps no contradiction in the seemingly dichotomous choice between engaging in the liberal international order and geopolitical rivalry. In order to understand this perception of the Chinese, it should be important to decipher the post-1989 Chinese nationalism as is described earlier, in combination a growing sense of confidence and pride among the Chinese, emanating from the recent spectacular rise to a great power status. These sentiments combine to make up a unique present-day nationalism among the Chinese people.(16)
As seen by the recent incursions long-term implications arising from and sustained by the Chinese nationalism aspiring for a new order in Asia will not disappear easily and will continue to affect various contemporary issues within the parameters of the international order.
It also appears that China has limited reciprocal legitimacy because its behavior calls into question if China is sufficiently committed to coexistence as a recipe for world order. In particular, China’s adherence to a historical understanding of legitimacy that deviates from modern universal interpretations of how sovereignty is acquired gives rise to suspicions as regards China’s long-term intentions. Insufficient trust in China’s willingness to be a responsible great power that looks after the common interests of states and not just its own national interests means that as China exercises more and more influence at the international level, other countries will interpret China’s intentions as threatening their security. The resentment and pushback against China’s growing influence that ensues create conflict and tension. If China is to reach its “Teddy Roosevelt Moment” in the sense of taking on a visible and active role on the world stage that involves major responsibility for global security management, Beijing needs to leave behind ambitions to rectify century-old violations of China’s alleged territorial and maritime space, even if it weakens China’s geostrategic position in Asia in the interim. At issue is not so much China’s growing strategic presence in its neighborhood; indeed, that is to be expected from a rising power. Instead, it is China’s insistence to correct historic wrongs that gives rise to concerns that restoration of the Chinese motherland is accompanied by the resurrection of a Chinese hierarchical hegemonic regional order that is ill-suited to the modern international system of sovereign states.
Giving Xi Jinping’s recent confirmations and promises the PRC's more assertive foreign policy is likely to continue as the country grows in confidence and power, and as it sees increasing opportunities to capitalize on the vacuum and discord created by Trump’s “America First” policies. The concept that Xi wants to promote is Chinese diplomacy in the new era is to promote what China perceives as the construction of a new type of international relations and a community of shared future.
Coming back to my remarks about the new Chinese Nationalism it should be noted that during his 29 Nov. 2017 re-nomination speech Xi stressed "patriotism" and that “it was time for his nation to transform itself into a mighty force” that could lead the entire world on political, economic, military and environmental issues. While in reference to the above quoted treatise published 15 Febr. on the front page of Monday's "People's Daily" Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, remarked that: “It reflects the Chinese leadership’s belief that right now is a huge opportunity for China to stake out a global leadership role.”
For 2018 we thus can expect a growing influence for the PRC especially in Asia and Central Asia, while Western countries and India, and possibly Japan, take a harder line against CCP efforts to influence media and politics. Whereby also the global business environment will have to adapt to new rules, standards, and practices advanced by China, not just within that country’s borders but in other countries where Chinese firms are increasing their presence and China’s government is expanding its influence.
1. See more recently also Michael Yahuda, Sino-Japanese Relations after the Cold War: Two Tigers Sharing a Mountain, London: Routledge, 2013.
2. Gregory J. Moore, “‘In Your Face’: Domestic Politics, Nationalism, and ‘Face’ in the Sino-Japanese Islands Dispute,” Asian Perspective 38, no. 2 (April– June 2014): 219– 40.
3. Hugh White, The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
4. Michael Yahuda, Sino-Japanese Relations after the Cold War: Two Tigers Sharing a Mountain, 2013
5. Ibid, p. 8
6. Daniel Sneider, “Interrupted Memories: The Debate over Wartime Memory in Northeast Asia,” in Confronting Memories of World War II, ed. Daniel Chirot, Gi-Wook Shin, and Daniel Sneider (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014), 50-54.
8. Kokubun, Soeya, Takahara, and Kawashima, Nitchu Kankei-shi [Modern History of Japan-China Relations], 150– 52.
9. After Nakasona, from Noboru Takeshita to Shinzo Abe, there have been seventeen prime ministers of Japan, and only three of them visited the Yasukini Shrine while in office, i.e., Ryutaro Hashimono in 1996, Junichiro Koizumi annually in 2001– 2006, and Shinzo Abe in 2013. There has never been a case of a foreign minister’s visit, while Shinzo Abe’s visit in 2006 is the only exception as cabinet secretary.
10. 人 民 日 報 ＜ People’s Daily ＞, January 8, 1953. The article is uploaded at: http://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/area/senkaku/images/qa/img03_l.jpg
11. The Japanese government did not protest this Chinese announcement explicitly, by giving priority to the overall relationship with Beijing, with which diplomatic normalization was achieved in September 1972. An internal Foreign Ministry document, however, had already stated in July 1972, anticipating diplomatic normalization with China, that “the Japanese government is in no position to negotiate the sovereignty issue of the Senkaku islands with any other government since it is the unequivocal fact that these islands are Japanese territories.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Nitchukan-no Kenan Jiko” [Pending issues between Japan and China], July 10, 1972) disclosed by the freedom of information act of Japan; Kokubun, Soeya, Takahara, and Kawashima, Nitchu Kankei-shi [Modern history of Japan-China relations], 128.
12. Dyer, The Contest of the Century, 113-22; David W. Kearn Jr., “Air-Sea Battle and China’s Anti-Access and Area Denial Challenge,” Orbis, Winter 2014, 132-46; Evan Braden Montgomery, “Contested Primacy in the Western Pacific: China’s Rise and the Future of U.S. Power Projection,” International Security, Spring 2014, 115– 49; Larry M. Wortzel, The Dragon Extends Its Reach: Chinese Military Power Goes Global (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2013).
13. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.
14. G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.
15. Evelyn Goh, The Struggle for Order: Hegemony, Hierarchy, and Transition in Post-Cold War East Asia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
16. Zhao Suisheng, A Nation-State by Construction: Dynamics of Modern Chinese Nationalism (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).