Xi and abe: the potential clash of nationalisms

The meteoric rise of ultranationalists in Europe has taken center stage during the latest rounds of discussion concerning the migration crisis, yet the rebounding nationalism of another region’s countries has largely been overlooked.

The growing nationalist sentiments of the East Asia’s two biggest players, China and Japan, pose to upset the balance of power more so than anti-immigrant xenophobia. Talk of China’s collapsing yuan and the purge of the Communist Party have dominated headlines in past weeks, but the undercurrent of nationalist fervor has grown recently. The celebrations marking the end of World War Two seventy years ago served to embolden Xi’s rhetoric, as well as the People’s Liberation Army’s pomp in its public displays of power. Touted internationally as a force to better protect the PRC in an unstable world, the parades characterized Beijing’s military force as its latest move towards power projection. The trend by the government seems to reflect a turn in popular support towards more assertive, if not aggressive, use of China’s strength in international politics. The future of such policies, if continued by Xi and his successors, could have an important impact on the role of China internationally, as a major Pacific Rim power with a world-class defense infrastructure could break the current American near-monopoly of military and humanitarian efforts in Asia.

Across the East China Sea, Shinz? Abe, leader of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, has pushed his own nationalist agenda for the island country’s development. Initially overshadowed by his controversial economic policy, colloquially known as “ Abenomics,” Abe’s newest plan involves a controversial overhaul of Japan’s defense structure. His government is seeking to amend Article 9 of the Japanese, a section of the document forbidding the creation of a standing military and the ability of the Japanese government to declare war. Japan had previously reinterpreted Article 9 to allow for deployment in defense of allies, a move that has been seen by critics as an unconstitutional expansion of war powers. If such an amendment were to pass, the pacifism of the document would be excised, allowing for the current Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to be replaced by a standing military with offensive capabilities. The expansion of military force by both countries is no surprise; the Chinese government has added billions in defense spending in 2015 alone, while Japan has increased military spending every year since Abe took power in 2012.

What has changed is the official state policy of both nations. China’s military exercise with Russia in August of 2015 demonstrated its capability as a true blue-water navy on par with many Western powers. This fact poses to redefine the dynamic of confrontation in territorial disputes, namely the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and the Senkaku (Diaoyu or Tiaoyutai Islands to the People’s Republic and Republic of China respectively). Both sides have taken invoked wartime sentiments in recent buildups. The Chinese government’s World War Two victory celebrations commemorating the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat were pushed as a moment of unity and national strength. While understandable, the political timing of such a move is impeccable.

China’s celebrations included a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin, showcasing the increasing affinity these two former allies now share. The Japanese have taken a more understated route in addressing the end of the war. Widely seen as a major aggressor during the war, especially locally, Abe apologized for the war, though he stopped short of shifting the rhetoric of past Japanese leaders. His record, however, makes clear his views on particular points of the war’s history. Abe belongs to a non-governmental organization known as the Nippon Kaigi (translated as “ Japan Conference.”) A nationalist group, the Conference is part political group, part revisionist organization.

Their notable positions on the war include a denial of the Rape of Nanking, the torture and mistreatment of Allied servicemen, and the use of sex slaves or “ Comfort Girls” by the Japanese Armed Forces. Revisionism and the redefinition of Japanese history remains an underdone of the Abe administration. Relations between these two countries are unlikely to improve in the face of competing economies and rival nationalist sentiments. Their relations with their neighbors pose a different problem all together. Abe’s government openly supports independence for the Republic of China, known globally as Taiwan, and referred to as Chinese Taipei by the mainland government. The status of Taiwan is a topic of international controversy, escalated substantially by the Japan’s support of independence.

Coupled with the strong polling of Tsai Ing-wen, leader of Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, the rise of Abe’s government could threaten to ignite nationalist tensions over Chinese unification. U. S. naval forces stationed in the strait of Taiwan maintain a degree of stability, though any shift in the paradigm of Sino-American relations could immediately undermine Taiwanese sovereignty, leading to a potential movement towards Japanese protection. The Korean peninsula could pose another interesting point of conflagration. A former colony of the Japanese Empire, the region is now divided between the North and South.

The North, a hereditary Juche autocracy, is in many ways a rouge state, though there is a degree of Chinese influence. Though the Kim regime has always accentuated the superiority of their people over ethnic Manchus and Han Chinese, though much of the hermit kingdom’s support comes through the People’s Republic of China. The North Korean government openly touts an independent agenda, though their actions have been moderated by the Chinese sphere of influence to a certain degree. The South grew its economy and eventually liberal democratic institutions while staving off an invasion by the North via American military power. Here, the legacy of Japanese colonialism conflicts with the threat of a Chinese backed North Korea invading.

South Korea has so far relied on the financial and material backing of the Department of Defense to prevent expansion by its neighbors, but the hand offered by Abe’s increasingly mobilized Japan is met with suspicion. Here, as well as in Taiwan to a certain extent, Japan’s actions in the years prior to the Second World War have left the populace concerned about the resurgence of Japanese imperialism. The international community is unlikely to allow the gross seizure of land by the Japanese government, even disputed territory, but the unofficial authority of hegemony could develop alongside China’s potential push into Vietnam, Mongolia, and the mineral fields of Africa, leading to an Asian Cold War. Time will tell if these nations develop their rivalry beyond the region. Resource extraction in the developing world is no longer dominated by American and Russian interests, leaving the door open for development by China and Japan to jumpstart their faltering economies.

Rapid militarization may pose a larger economic threat than military one as well; the projected decline of both populations could result in insolvency, thus destabilizing the most populous and economically vital region of the 21st century world. As the situation currently stands, the power seizure by the Xi and Abe administrations may expand personal authority, but at great risk to the future vitality of their respective nations.