[OUTLOOK]China should put nationalism asideChina is the “key to peace in Asia,” the British magazine The Economist wrote a few weeks ago. The magazine is right, but that was before violent anti-Japanese demonstrations swept Beijing over Japan’s insufficient contrition for its genocidal attacks on its East Asian neighbors in the 1930s and 1940s.
Now, as every Korean knows, the Japanese have not done what the Germans did after the end of World War II. The Germans paid huge reparations to Jews and other victims of Nazi imperialism, and they missed no opportunity to apologize and to make amends. Compared to the Germans, the Japanese still have a long way to go. But this is only one issue, though it is critical for good relations between Japan and East Asia. The other critical issue is China. The former Middle Kingdom certainly is the key to peace, but is it also a pillar of stability? The answer is: not yet.
There are many worrisome trends. Above all, there is a defense budget that is rising at double-digit rates. There is the recently passed law that threatens war against Taiwan if it moves toward formal secession. There are China’s territorial claims on islands around Japan and the Philippines. Chinese submarines penetrate Japan’s waters in order to test the country’s detection system. And there is hyper-nationalism at home that explodes regularly against the “enemy” of the day.
Recall three days of attacks on the U.S. Embassy in 1999, after U.S. planes, bombing Belgrade during NATO’s campaign against Serbia’s strongman Slobodan Milosevic, had inadvertently hit the Chinese Embassy. These attacks resumed in the wake of a collision between an American and a Chinese plane in 2001, forcing the U.S. plane to make an emergency landing in Hainan. And most recently, the world witnessed the eruption against Japan, which was directed not only against insufficiently apologetic Japanese textbooks, but also against the U.S.-Japanese declaration that Taiwan is a mutual security concern.
As a rising and sometimes aggressive giant, China evokes the perilous history of the late 19th and 20th centuries, when the two rising powers were Germany and Japan. They exemplified a classic pattern: First, a nation gets rich, then rowdy, trying to muscle others aside while falling prey to hyper-nationalism at home. We know how the story ended.
First came several decades of Japanese expansionism in Asia, starting with the attack on Russia’s Port Arthur and culminating in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The price was a Pacific-wide war between Japan and the United States.
Germany, clamoring for a “place in the sun,” first provoked World War I, which it lost, and then tried again for hegemony over Europe by starting a war of racial conquest in 1939. So the past is not encouraging; there seems to be an iron law that says: Rising nations are not good citizens of their regions; they will eventually try to force their way into the great-power club and, worse, trigger global war.
Will China go down the same path? This is not foreordained, because there is a new, horrifying element in the power equation: nuclear weapons. Japan did not know what would happen to it in August 1945 when it was crushed by two nuclear bombs. Today, we all know. The outcome will be nuclear devastation.
Nuclear deterrence is the most important cause for hope, and so is an enormous trade surplus China enjoys vis-a-vis the United States. But nations in the grip of hyper-nationalism are not necessarily rational actors; they may be pushed over the brink against their own will.
This is why China poses a residual risk. Hyper-nationalism is not just a tool of the Chinese Communist Party, which is trying to become ever more “Chinese” as it becomes less communist. Nationalism suffuses the entire society, to such an extent that the government had to call in the police to disperse the recent anti-Japanese riots. Recalling centuries of foreign oppression, China is a country of wounded pride, and such feeling sometimes drives out caution, as the behavior of Germany and Japan demonstrated in the 20th century.
So it is not easy to be good friends with China because you never know what will hit you tomorrow. Yet if the power competition goes too far in East Asia, all will lose, including South Korea and the United States.
To avert the worst possible outcome, China will have to join its great strength to great responsibility. And the United States will have to mastermind a process by which the rising giant is socialized peacefully into the balance of power. So far, both sides have been quite prudent with each other, with each side taking care not to approach the brink too closely.
The two countries, along with Japan and South Korea, have two potent interests that bind them together. One is to keep an enormously profitable trade system from collapsing. The other is North Korean nuclear weapons. For Beijing, this agenda should be more urgent than Japanese school textbooks and Taiwan’s attachment to its democratic way of life.
* The writer is the publisher-editor of Die Zeit.
by Josef Joffe
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