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Revanchist China

SYDNEY – In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, on February 22, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe informed the audience of officials, experts, and journalists that Japan is “back” and will not stand down in its ongoing sovereignty dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. With Chinese provocations on the rise, US President Barack Obama, Abe’s host, appealed for calm and restraint on both sides.

Japan is likely to accede – grudgingly – to America’s request, as it remains dependent on its alliance with the US for its security. But it will be much more difficult to persuade China that it should stand down.

China’s assertiveness over its sovereignty claim reflects more than a desire to exploit seabed resources, or to gain a widened strategic gateway into the western Pacific. It is also about national renewal and rejuvenation – the core of the Chinese Communist Party’s raison d’être. Turning away from a fight with its former occupier and historical rival would be a step backward in this six-decade-long quest.

The idea of Chinese renewal or rejuvenation was popularized by then-Premier Zhao Ziyang in the late 1980’s, and frequently promoted by Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Most recently, incoming President Xi Jinping, visiting the National Museum of China’s “Road Toward Renewal” exhibition, pledged to continue the “great renewal of the Chinese nation.”