Islands of Nationalism

BEIJING – If the recent tension between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea is any indication, relations between the world’s second and third largest economies will not be smooth for some time to come, despite ever-increasing bilateral trade and investment. That is because both countries’ latest rush to affirm their sovereignty over the islands – called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese – reflects a sense of insecurity and a perception that the other side is taking an aggressive stand, which means that the issue is unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future.

On the Japanese side, there is growing anxiety over China’s increasing economic and military prowess, such that some nationalists would like to “settle” the matter in Japan’s favor as soon as possible. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s recent call for Japan’s government to “purchase” the islands from “private” Japanese owners can be explained in this context.

On the Chinese side, the maritime quarrels with Japan – and with Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the South China Sea – have reignited a national debate about whether China’s foreign policy is too weak in terms of asserting the country’s interests. America’s “pivot” to Asia, viewed by many Chinese as an effort by the United States to reassert itself in Asia by supporting other Asian states in “containing” China’s rise, has fueled a siege mentality among Chinese nationalists. Their response is to call for tough military action in the South China Sea, and to stage symbolic landings on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, such as those staged by Hong Kong activists on August 15.

Japan arrested the activists, but deported them soon after, thus avoiding a prolonged confrontation with China. The Japanese authorities clearly learned a lesson from their detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain two years ago, when they eventually acceded to Chinese pressure – which included a range of harsh, and escalating, political and economic measures– to release him.