Diaoyu Islands

Nationalist tide over disputed territories a test for Beijing

Zhengxu Wang says growing nationalism among Chinese communities - not just on the mainland - has inevitably complicated Beijing's efforts to resolve its territorial disputes with neighbours

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 August, 2012, 8:08am

In recent days, public protests erupted in Chinese cities, with demonstrators demanding that the Japanese government return the Diaoyu Islands to China. These protests have also put a lot of pressure on the Chinese government to take a tougher stance against Japan.

The protests came after a group of activists, sailing on a Hong Kong vessel, landed on one of the disputed islands in an effort to proclaim China's sovereignty. They were arrested but quickly released after pressure from the government and public in Beijing, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The incident and ensuing public outcry showed that the islands remain a highly explosive issue within contemporary Chinese nationalism. It is also clear that nationalism is rising in Japan and other Asian countries.

In fact, domestic opinion in Japan is also calling for a more assertive line on the Diaoyu issue. The activists' landing was provoked by a series of events in Japan that suggested a more assertive stance. A plan to "nationalise" the islands appears under serious consideration by some sections of Japanese society and the government.

How to manage the dispute with the other party while satisfying domestic public opinion presents a big challenge to policymakers both in Tokyo and Beijing.

The Chinese public maintains a strong belief that the Diaoyu Islands are a legitimate part of China. The Ming and Qing dynasties had administrative control over them. In fact, Chinese researchers have pointed to Japanese historical documents acknowledging the islands as being under Qing governance. And, in private, some Japanese government officials have acknowledged that, historically, the islands did not belong to Japan.

Leaving aside all the legal and geopolitical nuances following the defeat of Japan in the second world war, what is significant today is that the majority of Chinese on the mainland, and in Hong Kong and Taiwan, believe that the administrative rights of those islands were illegally transferred to Japan in the 1950s and 1970s, when the US was attempting to build Japan as its pillar for a Western Pacific security strategy.

Chinese communities, including those on the mainland and in Hong Kong and Taiwan, harbour nationalist sentiments. Hong Kong and Taiwanese people may reject the political regime on the mainland, but when it comes to the Diaoyu issue, they share almost identical, if not more aggressive, positions.

In fact, activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan are often much more outspoken, as they are able to express their views more freely. As a result, activists from these apparently "less Chinese" places express Chinese nationalism more vocally.

This pattern also applies to other issues where China's territorial claims are yet to be fully settled: the South China Sea, Tibet and Xinjiang are cases in point.

On these issues, Chinese living everywhere often speak out to support Beijing's position. It is therefore simplistic to assert that the nationalism that has erupted over these disputed territories has been nurtured by the communist regime.

The underlying message is that, despite political differences, Chinese often share a set of common ideas when it comes to territory. Despite an allegiance to different governments (Beijing, Taipei, or others), they have a common understanding that the Chinese nation is linked to a certain geographical area.

Finding solutions to territorial disputes therefore constitutes a major challenge for Beijing. It will amount to a major nation-building project that Chinese nationalists - on the mainland, and in Hong Kong and Taiwan - are looking to the current leaders to accomplish. Failing to find a satisfactory solution will result in it being labelled a "traitor government", with its right to represent China taken back by the people.

To a lesser extent, the government in Taiwan, which still claims to represent the Chinese people, faces the same challenge.

Beijing finds itself between a rock and a hard place. It is facing great difficulties in trying to settle the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and now domestic opinion in Japan is pushing Tokyo to be more assertive towards China.

Radical nationalist movements could easily explode as Chinese perceive world powers and China's neighbours to be containing or challenging its interests.

Inside China, as Beijing tries to get things in order for this autumn's Communist Party congress, a wave of public mobilisation, no matter for what cause, is the last thing it wants. Having only a few months left in office, the incumbent leadership is in no mood to introduce new policy initiatives. Yet Beijing cannot afford to completely suppress public expression at home.

Any efforts to actively contain nationalist sentiment will invite harsh criticism that the government is selling out. Past experience has shown that when it faces a major surge of nationalist opinion, the government is likely to tolerate public protests for a period of time.

To show the public that the government is indeed working to defend national interests, Beijing will make strong and demanding diplomatic statements, while at the same time looking for ways to let public anger gradually fade.

Once that happens, the government will have more room for policy action. Only then will pragmatic negotiations with the Japanese government regarding how to manage the dispute be possible. In fact, Beijing and Tokyo had made significant progress on the Diaoyu Islands until efforts were disrupted by recent events.

Furthermore, Beijing is quickly learning new methods to assert its presence over disputed territories. The establishment of Sansha city has enabled China to turn its claims over waters and features in the South China Sea into an administrative presence.

The reported appearance of Chinese fishery authority vessels in the waters near the Diaoyu Islands last month very likely indicated the beginning of more routine exercises of a similar nature.

Dr Zhengxu Wang is deputy director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham




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