As nationalism has become central to the narrative of the respective governments, the increasing tension between Japan and China will not be resolved soon. Although nationalism is the poison common to both combatants, its application differs markedly due to their divergent political systems and strategic tendencies. China's statecraft is designed to win the long game.
The Chinese Community Party's recent decision to arbitrarily declare an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over a tiny group of islands in the East China Sea was interpreted by many in the Australian media to be a strategic miscalculation with little prospect of success. This reflects a common (to western commentators) misunderstanding of the Chinese mind. Although it is often difficult to identify with certainty the source or rationale behind China's foreign policy, it seems likely ADIZ is part of a long-term strategy to strengthen China's future claims over disputed territories, including the islands it claims from Japan.
It was inevitable that the United States would defy China's ADIZ at the earliest possible opportunity. If this ADIZ is able to even modestly influence the behaviour of Japan or the US, however, it would represent a gradual increase in the authority that China exerts over its territorial claims. Under international law, states can acquire sovereignty through the exercise of authority over an extended period. The expectation that the regional influence of both Japan and the US will gradually diminish, relative to that of China, is not unreasonable. The intended outcome of the ADIZ may not be achieved for half a century or more.
This strategy reflects the historic Chinese tendency towards a deliberate, patient and long-term strategy. As Henry Kissinger noted in his recent work, On China, ''the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage''. The ADIZ is a strategy that carries significant risk. It has understandably inflamed regional tensions. The American response and subsequent Chinese parries will further fuel the fire of nationalism within China. Nationalism, which should have been long since condemned by its past, is now more than ever critical to the legitimacy of the CCP. A sense of injustice will be nudged by the common knowledge within China that both Japan and the United States developed similar systems many decades ago.
There is a growing sense within China that the potential for social upheaval over the next 18 months is great. The current leadership of Xi Jinping is wrestling with an exquisite dilemma that has undone many ruling elites: how to grant modest freedoms to a population hungering for change in order to preserve the essential elements of the current system. A level of dissent directed at the party is now tolerated - so long as it is complemented by a fervent devotion to country. It is indeed possible to love one's country but disdain its government and, to some extent, even its system.
The risk that this modest increase in freedom posed to the legitimacy of the CCP is, however, real. Its legitimacy will only be maintained if the party alone is seen to be capable of satisfying the aspirations of the people. This task is made easier because the party has been instrumental in shaping these aspirations. The patriotic education that has been a focus of the school curriculum since 1991 has fostered residual feelings of humiliation at past and present injustices, as defined by the CCP, committed upon China. The nation embraces the desire to reverse past injustices with fervour. It is perhaps the most powerful popular sentiment in China today.
The foreign policy of ultra-nationalist Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also reflects an unfortunate and growing popular acceptance of a political narrative dependent on revisionist nationalism. Ultra-nationalism was thoroughly discredited by its actions during the Pacific War but has returned as a force in Japan. When Prime Minister Tony Abbott finds comfort in the values shared between the two countries, one wonders if he grasps the true nature of the current Japanese environment. Australia was one of the few countries not directly involved in the disputes and under different circumstances could have made a modest contribution to the creative diplomacy necessary to ease existing tensions.
This possibility was killed following Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's intervention, which lacked the necessary nuance. It is true that China's precipitous actions have raised tensions. We have reason to be concerned. But why did we not react similarly in 2012 when the decision was made by Japan, without much trace of consultation, to nationalise the disputed territories? Why did we not express our disdain about the decision to nationalise the islands - announced on the anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge incident that triggered the Sino- Japanese War?
A reliance on nationalism to satisfy the respective domestic political contexts means that diplomacy is not currently a credible instrument of statecraft for either Japan or China. The possible creative middle-power diplomacy of a third party appears to be beyond contemplation. The alternative to diplomacy is military strategy. China's strategy will be patient, not entirely devoid of risk, and designed to win a very long game. Let us hope that Australia's foreign policy is not confined to that of a diplomatic or military ancillary in a greater geo-strategic game - nor limited by a focus on China's perceived missteps at the expense of a rational consideration of the longer-term consequences of its immediate strategy.
Andrew Hunter is chairman of the Australian Fabians.
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