Nationalism Rises: China, Japan & The Senkaku-Diaoyu Dispute

The assertive and single-minded Chinese approach to the Senkaku-Diaogu dispute is rationally explainable, not as a sophisticated or well-planned strategy, rather by considering the role of nationalism and its interplay with power politics concerns.


Nationalism in Japan and anti-China protests


The second of a two-part series looking at the rise of nationalism. View the first part here.


The Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu according to the Chinese transliteration) are a group of tiny and uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. These 7 square kilometres are currently the middle of one of the most worrisome confrontations in the region between China and Japan. Both of them claim sovereignty over the islands: in 1895 Imperial Japan conquered them after a war with China; then, after the Second World War the United States administered the archipelago until 1970s, when Japan regained possession and control through a private purchase. From 2009, Chinese officials and commentators referred to that area as a sovereign “core interest”, like Taiwan and Tibet, given the great deal of exploitable natural resources underneath the East China Sea.

Despite the Chinese diplomatic efforts at reassuring their neighbours about its economic and military growth, territorial disputes over the East and South China Sea are progressively capturing the weary attention of other Asian governments and public opinions. Such an assertive and single-minded Chinese approach is rationally explainable, not as a sophisticated or well-planned strategy, rather by considering the role of nationalism and its interplay with power politics concerns.

As previously seen, the interaction between nationalism and the realist theory of International Relations affects units’ behaviour (the State) and their search for survival. In addition, this interplay is conducive to making the likelihood of war higher and its character tougher.

With regard to the Senkaku-Diaoyu dispute, the behaviours of China and Japan are explainable by taking into account the role of nationalism: however, considering solely such variable might not be sufficient to provide a comprehensive perspective of what is actually at stake in the East China Sea. As a matter of fact, power politics plays a relevant role in shaping the Sino-Japanese confrontation, whereas survival, and the fear for security and national integrity are the issues that each national actor considers mostly.


The Senkaku-Diaoyu case is a matter of survival for both China and Japan. According to structural realism, maintaining a stable degree of relative power should guarantee security between two nations. As repeatedly noticed, the Chinese growth on military expenditures, economic performances and soft-power influence, has brought its neighbours to rely more extensively on the support of some external and counterbalancing actors, such as the United States, in order to keep the level of power not overwhelming and acceptable for their security. However, the aggressive behaviour of China, showed even on other territorial disputes involving the Philippines and Vietnam, has deeply changed the perception of Asian countries towards the Chinese growth as a regional power, no longer identified as a peaceful riser rather as an hegemonic one. As a result, the national survival of these countries is perceived in danger, and the related national communities and cultural identities as well.

For this reason, since the Chinese “rational patriotism” has been identified as the only workable antidote to avoid any return to an  “humiliating past” and defend its national interests and sovereignty, Japan is increasingly fearful of China’s rise and, as a consequence of this threatening feeling, nationalist movements and political parties are pushing the country to assert itself more boldly against China’s territorial ambitions.

The State

Theoretically speaking, once the nation-state is created, its efficiency and protection is ensured by homogenizing people’s level of literacy and cultural knowledge through the modern national educational system. Especially in China, since the establishment of the Communist regime patriotic propaganda and formal education have constantly fed anger and resentment against the old imperial conquerors, such as the United States, Europe and Japan. Accordingly, the massive popular demonstration against Japan in the last few days, made crueler by national-flag burning, showed how the process of brainwashing put in place by the Communist ruling class towards the Chinese youth is actually real and dangerous for international stability. As a recent paper published in September confirms, China records one of the highest levels of popular nationalism in the world: this nationalism, however, is highly instrumental to regime stability and legitimacy. According to Wenfang Tang and Benjamin Darr, authors of the afore-mentioned research, through the education system Chinese people are constantly reminded of the ruthless Western invasion of China in the nineteenth century and the violent suppression of the Boxer Rebellion, ended up with fuelling violent nationalistic reactions against the “strangers”.


In this climate of widespread confrontation, what can be said about the likelihood of war? According to theory, nationalism increases the warfare ability of states in three ways: it allows them to set up large and powerful armies; its citizens guarantee a steady, constant and longstanding flow of resources even in military efforts; soldiers and military forces are not affected by the problem of desertion, given the strong ties of loyalty and solidarity with their own national community.

It is too early to even infer the possibility of a bellicose confrontation between China and Japan. It is however worth underlying the growing muscular role of the Japan’s Self-Defense Forces as well as its new security priorities: in the next few years, Japan’s government has planned heavy investments in helicopters and airplanes, and by 2015 the country has programmed to deploy troops in the East China Sea, just near the Senkaku archipelago.

Luckily, theory-making is primarily concerned with understanding reality, not predicting the future. As a matter of fact, prior to speaking about the possibility of war it is essential to consider a number of variables not yet implemented by policy-makers and officials (cooperation, diplomacy, changing of perception). Hopefully, this is exactly what other powers, such as the United States, are expecting from China and Japan, the second and the third economies in the world respectively.


Photo credit: ehnmark

5 thoughts on “Nationalism Rises: China, Japan & The Senkaku-Diaoyu Dispute”

  1. Well, political analyses, in order to be well-working, should be cautious and careful in their conclusion, rarely they are predictive; therefore, it could be “aggressive” instead of “assertive”, but the word itself contains a degree of prediction that, methodologically speaking, I cannot support.
    Although the “Survival” and “The State” paragraphs have been confirmed someway by events, now I personally hope that the last one will be denied promptly.

  2. Most western commentators have a complete lack of understanding of the history of the region. Beginning with the punitive Japanese expedition to Taiwan in 1874, escalating to the 1894 Sino-Japanese War, China has been on the receiving end of Japanese aggression for over half a century. Now they are dealing with a Japan that not only behaves in a belligerent fashion but changes history and denies it did anything wrong in spite of having caused over 25 million deaths in China alone in the 1937-45 war. No country in the world would put up with such abuse and not react in a violent fashion.

  3. Your claims over the “western commentators” can be partially true, but my article is not a historical review on the region. So, take it only as the humble (and hopefully impartial) attempt at understanding contemporary political dynamics.

    As for your position on the issue, I would be interested in studying further what you say, especially after the election of the new Japanese PM. Is there any available English account on that?

    Well, despite your short historical review, it’s usually far better staying away from violence, the “history”, and its heritage, that you so rightly and proudly recall, should teach us all something..and in my opinion, China, since its global and strong political clout, should keep on behaving peacefully, as done so far. Obviously, just for its own sake and national interest.

  4. After World War 2, the US administered both Diaoyu island and Okinawa.

    Now, Okinawa is a huge US military base, but the independent Okinawa movement is conveniently ignored.

    The Diaoyu island dispute with China and Taiwan only escalated after Japan bought the island from a Japanese squatter.

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