[Overseas view]Trumping nationalismGovernments have historically used nationalism to rally populations, motivate rapid development and maintain the legitimacy of otherwise unpopular leaders. The recent cooperation in East Asia owes a lot to government restraint on the playing of the nationalism card.
Meetings between representatives of Beijing and Taipei have yielded regular cross-Strait flights and promises of further economic integration. North Korea’s regime is visibly disabling its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and expanding external contacts. China and Japan are building mutual trust through resumed summits, military exchanges and joint development of gas reserves in the East China Sea.
Despite this international cooperation, identity-based conflicts in East Asia are becoming more complicated. Foreign policy is increasingly subject to public debate in South Korea, Taiwan and even China. This is a positive trend for government accountability and political freedom, but comes with the risk that opposition groups will use nationalism as a weapon against the ruling party.
Political tragedy ensues when beneficial international cooperation is prevented by critics using nationalism to score points. Such partisan nationalism was at work in South Korea concerning U.S. beef, in Taiwan regarding the Senkaku Islands, and in China over receiving earthquake aid via Japanese military planes.
In the first case, President Lee Myung-bak decided to lift the import ban on American beef to provide momentum for ratifying the Korea-U.S. FTA. Unfortunately, Lee applied his business pragmatism without doing his political homework. Lee failed to convince Koreans how U.S. beef is scientifically safe and would lower food costs.
Public health workers and South Korean cattle ranchers did not incite the demonstrations. The rallies were organized over the Internet by labor unions angry about plans for privatization and market liberalization, students upset with educational reforms and various progressive groups desperate after losing at the ballot box.
Protests are diminishing, but not before public support for Lee hit rock bottom, global businesses started to rethink investment in Korea and partisan nationalism strained U.S. relations.
In a separate case, a Taiwan fishing boat sank near the disputed Senkaku Islands after colliding with a Japanese coast guard vessel. Officials in Tokyo and Taipei were keen to quietly manage the incident. But domestic pressure on President Ma Ying-jeou demanded a harsher response. Taipei dispatched patrol boats to the islands it claims as Diaoyutai, and recalled Taiwan’s representative from Tokyo.
Taiwanese fishermen value access to those waters, and potential gas resources in the area are of interest to Taiwan. However, Taipei’s response appeared driven by politicians focused on relations with Beijing. Detractors within Ma’s party wanted to raise their popularity and know anti-Japan sentiments might help warm ties with China. The Democratic Progressive Party, opposed to Ma’s engagement of the mainland but weakened after recent elections, was desperate for any leverage against the president.
Political opponents found in the Senkaku incident an emotional sovereignty issue with which to attack Ma. Apologies and compensation were eventually worked out between Tokyo and Taipei, but not before partisan nationalism embarrassed Ma and unsettled Taiwan-Japan relations.
In the third case, Japanese and Chinese officials planned for Japan Air Self-Defense Force C-130s to deliver earthquake aid supplies to Sichuan. The message of friendship would have been poignant: the first Japanese military flights to China since World War II would transport tents and blankets instead of guns and bombs. Unfortunately, the C-130s never left the ground. Word spread over the Internet before leaders explained the benefits of cooperation.
China was already very nationalistic after international protests that followed the Olympic torch. Some decried their government for not being tougher on Tibet and foreign critics. Chinese leaders became increasingly sensitive that nationalism could be used against the Communist Party.
Thus, once Chinese Web sites railed opposition, Beijing refused help from the Japanese. Supplies were eventually delivered on chartered planes. But a key opportunity to help victims quickly and advance reconciliation was missed.
Partisan nationalism is a powerful tool because it channels public grievances, directing collective outrage against political opponents.
The danger is that policies in the common interest, with few or no real losers, can become political lightning rods. This can short-circuit cooperation, making international relations more volatile.
Since partisan nationalism puts short-term political gains ahead of long-term strategic interests, even the best international agreements may take more work to realize.
East Asia needs leaders who can trump partisan nationalism by convincing their populations that their neighbors are worth embracing.
*The writer is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University’s Department of Government and a visiting scholar at UCLA.
by Leif-Eric Easley