Why Chinese Nationalism Could Impact the East and South China Seas VERY Differently

Chinese nationalism towards Japan is so pointed that it has an ossifying effect. In the South China Sea, there is somewhat less at stake for Chinese nationalists and the situation is much more dangerous.

If we are sliding into a new era of great power conflict between China and the United States, then the front lines of such a struggle will clearly be located in maritime Asia.  It is here where Beijing appears to be intent on more actively asserting its claims to contested territory in the East and South China Seas.

Not surprisingly, China’s neighbors, particularly Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, have strenuously objected to these moves.  So far Washington has avoided being directly dragged into such confrontations.  However, should shots be fired over Asia’s troubled waters America will be find it difficult not to get involved.

There is a great deal at stake in both the East and South China Seas, not only for those competing over these spaces, but also for the United States. It is crucial to understand why the situation there has become so fraught:  In both cases it is widely recognized that the key driver for conflict is the rise of nationalism, particularly in China. But, such a view is incomplete, and as a result misleading.

Chinese nationalism is not a singular entity. The way it is framed with reference to China’s Asian neighbors varies significantly. Within such variations lie important, but largely overlooked, implications for the how Beijing is handling its maritime disputes, and by extension for the degree of volatility within such conflicts.

Paradoxically, Chinese nationalism towards Japan is so pointed that it has an ossifying effect on Beijing’s approach to the East China Sea. In contrast, in the South China Sea there is somewhat less at stake for Chinese nationalists and the situation is much more fluid and potentially dangerous.

The East China Sea-How Nationalism May Be A Deterrent of Conflict:

Opposing Japan is a foundational anchor for contemporary Chinese nationalism–and it is difficult to understate the depth of antagonism toward Japan in China. It is readily visible in everyday life within China, both in casual conversations and in the stream of shows on Chinese television that repeatedly re-create scenes of past Japanese aggression. Such belligerence was most recently on public display during Beijing’s September 3 commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender that ended WWII.

One might think that such a vilification of Japan would tend to make the conflict between Beijing and Tokyo over ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea all the more explosive. It did appear to fuel confrontation in 2012 when the two sides last escalated their dispute over this territory.  However, at that time, China’s leaders stopped short of direct military engagement with Japan, because domestic ramifications of a battlefield death would have been wide-ranging and potentially impossible to manage. In other words, Chinese nationalist sentiment toward Japan was so toxic that Beijing appears to have come to the realization that bluntly engaging Tokyo on disputed territory carried too much risk.

The subsequent period of extended détente, albeit a frosty one, between the two East Asian nations, is a natural extension of such a push. Beijing is being deterred in the East China Sea by the depth of anti-Japanese sentiment in China.

Such a collective identity makes the prospects for peace over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands exceedingly remote, but it also has a calcifying effect on the conflict itself. It leaves it frozen in place, unlikely to be resolved, but equally unlikely to devolve into an armed confrontation. Thus, unexpectedly, Chinese nationalism, at least in this case, is a cause for something that resembles stability within the region.

The South China Sea: Troubled Waters

Chinese nationalists have also set their sights on the South China Sea and reclaiming contested territory there. However, Chinese sensitivities here are less raw, less pronounced, than they are in the East China Sea. As much resentment as there is in China of perceived Vietnamese and Filipino infringements upon Chinese sovereignty here, Vietnam and the Philippines are bit players within the story of Chinese nationalism in comparison to Japan.

Perversely, the absence of such pointed animosity makes for a more fluid, and potentially dangerous, security dynamic. A Chinese death in the South China Sea, whether at the hands of Vietnam or the Philippines, would raise the ire of Chinese nationalists, but it would not enflame nationalist sentiments in the way that a similar event would if it involved Japan.

As a result, China’s leaders can bolster their nationalist credentials at home in these disputes by exerting greater pressure on Hanoi and Manila, without running as great a risk that should things go astray they might result in upheaval at home.

By extension the situation in the South China Sea is less stable, and more dangerous, than is the case in and around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

Ongoing Dangers (And a Sliver of Hope):