A recent column in PolicyMic argued that the events surrounding the Senkaku (or Diayou, according to China ) islands will likely not spiral into armed conflict. In this case, the author, in my opinion, is correct, as China has already softened its tone and expressed a desire for a peaceful resolution.
The concern, however, does not lie only with the immediate outcome from this crisis, but what will happen in the almost inevitable future moments of tension between China and its many Pacific neighbors. My concern is that the wave of nationalism that often grips China during these moments may at some point back the government into a corner and force an action that is either dangerous to its people or another country.
For the Chinese government, nationalism and its promotion is likely used in order to deter criticism and frustration and focus it elsewhere. For an autocratic government going through what has become a rather tough once-in-a-decade transition, it’s a convenient way to keep attention and anger diverted from domestic events such as the continuing Bo Xilai scandal and the mysterious weeks-long disappearance of heir apparent Xi Jinping.
The government not only foments this nationalism, however, but also tries to steer it for its own political use. Hence, when they perceive it as getting out of control, the government clamps down, and has already begun to do the same for the recent protests. So far, it’s been a good way to draw the other country’s attention while maintaining a level of control. Previous actions that fit this bill include a 2001 “cyber war” with the U.S. following an in-air collision and protests in 2010 following the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain by Japanese maritime personnel.
By using nationalism and protests as both an outlet and a political tool, however, the Chinese government may possibly be playing with fire. One potential result is that similar future protests can become incubators for reform movements within China, an outcome that would likely be welcomed in the West and elsewhere.
What worries me, however, is that this nationalism may sooner or later persuade the Chinese government to make a bad decision. As nationalism becomes accepted as the means by which the venting of pent-up frustrations can be channeled, it can become more entrenched and, responding to the public, may change the way the Chinese government in turn operates. To give an example, China has recently made a formal move to demarcate its territorial waters. This may sound small, but this move is in essence a legal declaration of sovereignty over the claimed area and may push China toward blunt, tough responses that heighten tensions.
The past few years have seen an increase in tensions both around the Senkaku Islands and the islands of the South China Sea, due in no small part to China’s increasing assertiveness. This has had no significant political or economic effects yet, but by stoking the fervent fires of nationalism every once in a while, the Chinese government may face a day where snuffing out protests and outrage becomes impractical.
And that will be one very interesting day.