“The Problem with Islands”
The Asia Institute
April 6, 2014
Several Chinese friends have asked me write about the issue of islands, specifically the Diaoyutai Islands that have come to completely dominate the discussions of Chinese if one asks about Japan. They asked me to write about the Diaoyutai Islands because they felt that I can be objective. In a sense I am objective as a speaker, but perhaps I am not objective in the sense that they imagine.
As an American, I can say a few words about islands. Let us talk about the Hawaii Islands that the United States made a territory in 1893. They were made a territory, and eventually a state, after an illegal coup staged to overthrow the independent government of Hawaii under Queen Liliʻuokalani. More importantly, we know that the land occupied by the United States today, almost all of it possessed by people who came from Europe, once belonged to native people, the Navaho, the Cherokee, the Sioux and many other tribes whose names have been forgotten. Their land was taken away from them in the most unethical manner. It was taken by theft, through broken treaties, and in many cases through wanton murder and thievery.
And today, where do we stand? Many Americans have forgotten that history. And Chinese are not all that interested either in how the United States was built. Such cruelty is not new in human history, and expansionism is found in many so-called “advanced countries.” But I doubt that such behavior is something uniquely American, or Japanese. It is part of the cruelty of human nature and is manifested in the countries that, for domestic reasons choose military and economic expansion. Without such expansion, Europe and the United States could not have become so prosperous, nor could Japan.
For my part, my mother came to the United States in 1962 and my father’s family came to the United States in the 1890s. So I can say that the crimes of Americans against native people from another age are not my crimes. But in fact, I have benefited in many ways from the economic system in the United States, and received a good education that the poor children of defeated Indians do not receive. Those children of the men and women were robbed of their land do not go to decent schools and rarely go to Yale or Harvard.
And although I would be certainly supportive of plans to help native Americans receive far more benefits than they get now, it would certainly be hard for me to say that I would support giving all the land back to the few remaining Indians at this point.
So it seems to be that Japanese expansion of control into Okinawa, which started from 1872, and even the recent Japanese claims on the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands, fall in a general pattern of behavior: military and economic expansionism that is by no means uniquely Japanese. I condemn the needlessly provocative actions of Japan over the last few years, but I do not think that Japan is somehow inherently worse than many other countries in its actions. It acts as many such powers have done in the past. But Japan does stand out in terms of its aggressiveness today.
Part of the reason for Japan’s behavior has to do with the end of the Second World War. Unlike Germany where the ruling Nazi party was dismantled and all government documents were made public, in part because of joint occupation by the United States and Soviet Union, in Japan the United States agreed in advance to keep the Emperor 천황 in his position after surrender and to leave large parts of the bureaucracy in place. As a result there remain some documents from the war time that are not accessible even today. Some part of the traditions of imperial Japan survive to the present day within the government itself such as the Imperial ministry 宮内庁.
I stress this point because I think it is a serious mistake to assume that Japanese are simply aggressive or cruel by nature. Some of the leaders in movements for world peace have been Japanese and Japan has a diverse and complex culture. If you just want to just complain about Japan, you can stop reading here. If you want to think about a possible solution to the problem, let us first think seriously about the true nature of the issues.
Although China does not have the tradition of radical expansionism such as emerged in Europe in the 15th century and then extended to Japan, China certainly has a history of brutality towards other countries and peoples that can be found periodically in its history. That is not a surprise. It is nothing more or less than human nature.
History and the Diaoyutai Islands
I will concentrate on the Senkaku/ here for the sake of simplicity, although there are other islands in the South China Sea, for example, that have become a major source of tensions in the region. What I say about Diaoyutai is related to Chinese disputes (and Korean disputes) with Japan and other countries.
Of course the controversy about the Diaoyutai Islands has its roots in history. These islands evoke for Chinese memories of Japanese imperialism and the Japanese disregard for the territorial integrity of China. Those memories, whether passed down through families, or learned through books and movies, continue to affect how Chinese respond to Japan’s actions. But I think that to say what is happening is just a matter of history story is not sufficient, and perhaps even misleading. The important question is what has made the islands such a serious dispute in recent days.
The Senkaku Islands are between Okinawa, the Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. This location is significant at both Taiwan and all of Okinawa are potentially contested islands. Taiwan was colonized by Holland, Portugal and Japan, and has been the home also to the exile government of the Ming, various pirate families and currently the exile government of the Republic of China. The Okinawa archipelago was known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, a country similar to Hawaii that managed to maintain diplomatic ties with both Japan and China.
Okinawa was a relatively open country, with fishermen and traders hopping from island to island and engaging in trade on an informal basis. If you wanted to say where China ended and Japan began back in the eighteenth century, it was not so easy to draw a line. The closer you came to Kyushu, the more Japanese the culture was and the closer to Taiwan the more Chinese. But the Ryukyu Kingdom had its own languages and its own culture that was neither Chinese nor Japanese. Ryukyu was above all a bridge.
The open system of borders that the Ryukyu Kingdom represented was simply intolerable as the Japanese economy became modern. The creation of a modern state in the period after the Meiji restoration of 1867 required clear borders, a strict definition of the nation民族 and also colonies in the interest of economic and political development. Ryukyu was renamed Okinawa, using the Japanese term, the equivalent of “Sengaku” and became Japan’s first colony，starting in 1872, and was later incorporated fully as a province. Although the United States occupied Okinawa after the Second World War, but returned the islands to Japan in 1972, exactly 100 years after Japan’s conquest.
We should look at the acquisition of the Ryukyu Islands in the context of the profound transformation of all of human society in the nineteenth century. We can see part of that transformation start in the 18th century in England (although the transformation was happening globally) with the enclosure acts.
The enclosure acts were a legal effort to redefine the nature of land. It was the beginning in England, and throughout Europe, of the modern concept of “real estate” –land that belongs to an individual or corporation in an absolute sense. There had been traditionally “commons” in the feudal society of Europe. These commons were land that all people in the community had the right, through tradition, to use to graze their animals and to far. In a general sense the land was part of the fief under the symbolic control of the lord 公爵, but the accepted practices of the people were considered to have significance and the relationship between lord and commoner was seen as symbiotic. But suddenly, a “great transformation” took place, a change that is so well described in Karl Polanyi’s book The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. The lords came to believe that the commons was their “real estate” and they felt not only that the land belonged to them in an absolute sense, that the poor farmers were not entitled to use it in spite of centuries of custom, but they also saw land in a geometric sense as ending at a very specific place, an absolute line beyond which it suddenly becomes “mine.” The poor farmers who had used the land were blocked from using the land and walls were built to “enclose” it. European society was transformed at every level. Some for those farmers were reduced to begging and many ended up working in the factories that would transform the economy of the nineteenth century.
This shift in the meaning of land had profound implications for more than farmland; it was the beginning of a radical transformation of all objects into products and goods for consumption and created the consumer culture continues to develop today. That revolution in thinking transformed everything it touched in the world into a fungible product that can be bought and sold. It would affect not only how people thought about land, but also how they thought about other people.
It is critical to see Japan’s annexation of Okinawa, and the subsequent history of the Senkaku Islands, within that socio-economic context. To see how this modern thinking has transformed Asia and made the question of borders so critical—as if a piece of land must belong to someone or another.
That was the problem, of course. For the native American in what we now call the United States, for the people of Hawaii or Ryukyu, this modern concept of “real estate” and national territory was quite alien. It was the same as if someone were to claim that the sun or the moon belongs to me. Of course one had rights to land based on tradition and use, but here in the Japanese takeover of Okinawa, legal documents were made up to say that Okinawa was a specific space and it belonged in some absolute sense to Japan and so did its lands, its resources and its people.
The very concept of national borders was radically altered by the economic transformation of the nineteenth century. We tend to think of the modern transformation of society as a positive, but it also meant much less flexibility with concern to borders and boundaries. The absolutes of mathematics and geometry were oddly projected out onto the rather porous and human interstices between cultural continuum.
As Japan reinvented itself after the Meiji Restoration, the physical borders of Japan, its territory and possessions, became a critical issue for national survival—or at least that was how Japanese perceived the situation. The success of Japan in the Meiji period was essentially Japan’s ability to quickly adopt this new approach to thinking about things and about land. There was no longer any potential for gray area for Japan, and they could not tolerate the Ryukyu Kingdom, an archipelago of peaceful people that slowly transitions from one center of cultural production into another, from Japan to China while maintaining cultural and political ties to both. A new bureaucracy had been established for controlling all territory, both Okinawa and Hokkaido, and new documents were issued by the government that determined what land belonged to whom. To individuals, to corporations and to nations.
In the post-war period, the United States occupied Okinawa, and then agreed in 1969 to return Okinawa to Japan. It was at that point that the Senkaku islands were transferred to Japan in terms of “administrative rights.” The United States clearly avoided the term “sovereignty” when preparing to handover these islands in 1972. The phrase suggests an attempt to create an ambiguous status for the Senkaku Islands. The use of that phrase “administrative rights” with regards to the islands deserves careful consideration. One might ask what exactly the difference is between “administrative rights” and “sovereignty” or “ownership.” In what exact sense does an island belong to a nation and who, ultimately, does that nation belong to?
Over the last one hundred years an elaborate discipline of maritime boundaries has emerged that draws on that new concept of land and borders dating back to the enclosures act. A new set of rules for international law has become largely accepted as both something concrete and legitimate. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea assumes that the possession of resources and legal regulations over inhabitants start and stop at an absolute line, like something taken from Euclid’s geometry. But in the world we live in there exists no such line: it is a projection out of legal abstractions. Certainly that line means nothing to tuna, or whales, or even divers for abalone except when they are ensnared in a controversy.
Getting the problem right
Sometimes I wonder whether we have the island problem backwards, whether we are looking at the whole problem from the wrong perspective. Many commentators on the Diaoyutai controversy say: oddly, despite the tremendous potential for cooperation and integration between Japan and China, the old resentments from the past, the memories of history and past Japanese aggression linger on and are causing problems.
But could it be that the cause of this controversy is precisely the opposite? Could it be that precisely because China and Japan are reaching such a high level of economic, technological and structural integration that we find the islands problem growing more serious? High levels of integration mean that the old systems of governance in both China and Japan are in danger of losing ground. Increasingly the power and the ability to make decisions is moving to the local level, to local government, or by contrast to multinational corporations and other players outside of the realm of government as traditionally understood. Central governments are paralyzed as institutions and often unable to make long-term plans or respond to the needs of citizens. They appear increasingly irrelevant for ordinary people. At the same time, corporations, NGOs and a variety of other players are having immense impact within nations, between nations and around the world.
These new players determine how money is used and how social priorities are determined—they do it through governments, but the changes do not originate with government. By contrast, the old central government, and the corporations that are dependent on the central government for their profits from public spending, are anxious to find opportunities to create an environment in which China, Japan, Korea and the United States appear again as solid blocks in which the interests of common people are the same as those of the central government. These diplomatic crises surrounding islands are opportunities for the central government to serve as a legitimate representative of the nation and thus are valuable as a form of political drama.
Each crisis serves to affirm the myths and legends that support the central government and revive the myth of a unified nation in which the people, the government, corporations and all other players are on the same page and have the same interests. When the controversy over the islands comes up, suddenly the central institutions, institutions that feel that they are losing control of the nation because of the growth of the Internet and the fragmentation of society into rich and poor, suddenly feel they have something they can use to justify their existence. So perhaps it is not “in spite of such economic integration” but rather “because of such economic integration” that we have such problems with islands.
This battle is perhaps the last cry of the nation state, that last attempt to force the problems of the 21st century to conform to the old structures of the past for governance and identify. As China and Japan grow more closely integrated in terms of cycles of manufacturing and distribution, in terms of finance and even in terms of a common culture, there is a need to generate such tensions, and to play them up so as to assert the functionality of the state.
Of course, at the very same time, various nationalist groups in China or Japan use the island controversies to increase their power as well. And there are examples in which local government that is trying to increase its political power by manipulating the island issue. For example, the city of Tokyo, under the rule of the right-wing politician Ishihara Shintaro, has purchased the real estate of the Sengaku Islands and made them part of Tokyo (as strange as that may sound). Thus real estate becomes nation state, but only as part of a local government. This game suggests that there is a new flexibility and uncertainty as to what the nation is. After all, it would not have been possible for a local government, the city of Tokyo, to do something that was the job of the national government: buying an island and nationalizing it.
The recent military buildup related to the Diaoyutai Islands also props up old systems of thought and of behavior. The tension over islands has justified a major increase in military spending in China and Japan (and other nations). Most people say that lingering historical disagreements and mutual distrust are the cause of these conflicts. But it could it be that the opposite is true?
Could it be that in an age in which climate change is the greatest threat before man, in which the growth of drones and the IT revolution are rapidly making traditional tools used by the military essentially useless for even combat, that there is a need by those who benefit from traditional military systems (tanks, fighter planes, war ships and missile systems) to desperately create some sort of a crisis that will make their products seem useful? These island conflicts do much to justify traditional approaches to security in Japan and China at a moment when such technology is increasingly irrelevant. Such conflicts are justifications for military drills to practice landing on islands, launching missiles and firing artillery. If it were not for these rituals, those devices might never be used at all. And it is most likely that in the case of a future war, if that happens, they will prove essentially useless as the nature of that conflict will be so different. The political conflicts over the islands have become repeated ritual, but a destructive ritual, that serves to distract us from real security issues and justify the maintenance of ineffective weapons.
There is an old Roman expression that we should keep in mind when thinking about the Diaoyutai Islands. The phrase is “cui bono?” or “who benefits?” That is to say, who will benefit from an increasing battle over islands within each country and also who will benefit on the international stage from such a conflict? Of course it is not true that every group that benefits from conflicts between China and Japan is necessarily involved in creating the conflicts. But in many cases those groups are, indirectly and directly, involved in keeping the focus of attention on the issue of territory.
What is happening in Japan?
In the case of Japan, the conflict with China over territory helps multiple parties. It helps the imperial family 天皇一族 and the 宫内厅 within the government that has direct responsibility for the imperial family. Such conflicts can serve to sway public opinions towards a greater support for these rather backwards-looking institutions. There are also right-wing groups that use the emperor as a means to motivate followers and to justify their attacks on their political enemies. The conflict with China helps these groups to justify their existence and even to increase their budgets. The budget issue is important to remember as the core leaders of right wing groups are less likely to be political fanatics, and more likely operators trying to take advantage of the tensions to make money—if possible through state spending. In many cases, these institutions do not help ordinary people in any way, but if the conflict is big enough, they hope, there is a chance that ordinary citizens will go along with the increases in their budget because they feel such groups can provide some concrete response to the problem they see on TV every day.
And we should not assume that the media is a bystander in this process. The media stands to make a substantial amount of money from the heated and often irrational debate concerning territory. The media in Japan, and around the world, is losing money these days on many of its traditional functions. In part this loss of income for media is related to the growth of the Internet and the decline of literacy. But equally media loses money because media is simply irrelevant to the lives of most people. Media covers such a limited number of topics and rarely touches on the daily lives of people or offers useful information to them. Therefore there is an incentive to create crisis, or the appearance of it, in order to sell newspapers, or television programs, and so by to justify the media’s own existence.
The Japanese military and the broad range of corporations who benefit from the growth of the Japanese military obviously benefit from the confrontations with China. They can increase their budgets for expensive weapons systems that otherwise serve no purpose. The military can also use the crisis to encourage young Japanese to think of a career in the military as an appealing option. The possible appeal of the military in an age of diminishing job opportunities is significant. The more people that have jobs related to the military budget, the stronger the generals will be politically and the more they can extend their influence into every aspect of Japan. This is the strategy they pursued in the 1930s.
The generals and the corporations most heavily invested in the Japanese military system know that Japan has had a strong military culture in the past and a significant crisis could help to awaken that sleeping tradition and make it part of the lives of all Japanese. They remember fondly how the military culture of Japan was used effectively for political control in the 1930s and they hope they can transform Japanese culture and overthrow the peaceful culture that has been common to many Japanese citizens after the Second World War. The constant talk of war in the media is slowly, but surely, shifting Japanese perceptions of the military.
Japanese politicians like to talk about a return to a “normal” Japan. The phrase is somewhat ridiculous. It implies that Japan is a peaceful country that has no military, in contrast most countries in the world. This phrase is blatantly untrue. Japan has one of the largest militaries in the world and some of its military technologies are unrivaled. The real intention is not to make Japan “normal” but rather to transform Japan into a major military power on a par with Russia, China, the United States and the United Kingdom.
A related issue is Japan’s access to international markets for weapons. The United States and Russia generate many billions of dollars in revenue from the sale of fighter planes, tanks, and complex weapons systems around the world. A single jet fighter can be sold for hundreds of millions of dollars—and generates the greatest percentage of profits of any export. At present, Japan’s peace constitution and the provisions of the US-Japan Security Treaty restrict the ability of Japan to sell military weapons abroad. Japan supplies parts to the United States that are then used in American weapons that are sold abroad, but profits are far smaller than would be the case if Japan sold directly a finished product like a jet fighter or a frigate.
The frustration is immense for Japanese corporations. After all, these companies have technology that is often better than that offered by the United States or Russia, the two big players in international arms sales. If a crisis resulting from the confrontation with China could lead to a change in Japan’s constitution that significantly increased the budget of the 国防省 and institutionalized the dispatch of the Japanese military around the world, that would loosen controls on the sales of Japanese military hardware, create military to military relations between Japan’s military and that of other countries that would then lead to profitable contracts and offer opportunities for Japan to compete in the international arms market.
The actions of Japan’s government are rather complex to start with. Although Japanese may look like they are looking for a major military confrontation, and perhaps that is what they will eventually get, it is not necessarily their long-term strategy to have an actual conflict with China—as that could cause considerable losses to Japan. It is entirely possible that the powerful groups at the center of Japan’s government would like to use a confrontation with China as a means to build up their military and enter the international arms market, but that after that confrontation had ended and Japan was free to sell its weapons, Japanese would want to return to good relations with China. They may even see China as an important possible future market for their weapons.
The attempt of right wing groups to play up the problem with the islands is also tied to profound social and cultural problems within Japan itself. Japan is an extremely wealthy country with highly educated citizens. Although Japan has avoided some of the most brutal economic restructuring that we see in the United States or China that have put the middle class in marginal jobs and denied a new generation any future, Japan is suffering from a profound spiritual malaise. As the Cold War ideology of rapid growth and consumption which was combined with certain norms for the limits of capitalist exploitation, dies out, the youth of Japan increasingly feel aimless and uninspired. Japan, in comparison with Korea or Vietnam or China, is richer and better educated, but oddly many citizens lack the vitality and enthusiasm that they once had. The meaningfulness of life is in doubt for them, and they cannot imagine a positive future any more.
Young Japanese are therefore cynical about the world and self-centered in their behavior. The lack of direction and motivation among Japanese youth deeply worries its politicians and businessmen. This lack of optimism and enthusiasm is dragging Japan down. But rather than trying to address the possible roots of the problem in the alienation caused by consumer culture, politicians would rather use nationalism and militarism as a tool to inspire youth and create a motivated population. Confrontations, they believe, could serve this purpose and avoid any need to address the serious social and economic contradictions underlying the problem. Confrontation, they reason, can inspire a new patriotism and rekindle the Japanese miracle. Even if youth have no interest in the visits to the Yasukuni shrine, if the conflicts grow more serious, perhaps youth will be seduced with an image of bravely standing up against China—or so the politicians hope.
Youth, confronted with an aging population that is greedily using up wealth for its own benefit and at their expense, have plenty of reasons to be unhappy. So far that anger has not been properly channeled. What could be more convenient than to channel it towards a conflict with China?
In the case of China, clearly a confrontation with an “evil” Japan can help to reaffirm the authority of the central government and lead ordinary citizens to overlook the abuse of power and authority by elites in government. Conflict with Japan can increase Beijing’s role in national affairs, its power relative to local government, and also strengthen the role of the military in political affairs. These factors are the same for China, Japan and the United States.
Conflicts with Japan can be employed as an excuse to increase military spending and distort the total economy for the benefit of those involved in military manufacturing. As Chinese industry is increasingly privatized, this risk will increase. Fortunately for China, the People’s Liberation Army was an organization not explicitly linked to foreign wars with a strong part of its mission defined in social terms. So there is less risk in China of militarism than is the case in the United States or Japan, although the risk is there.
China does not have the same expansionist tradition of Japan and although there have been brutal wars involving China and neighboring nations like Vietnam, there is no precedent in Chinese history for the sorts of global actions that were taken by Japan in the Second World War. China has never tried to occupy that much foreign territory far from its shores and even now, despite all of its economic power, there is no indication that China has any interest in claiming territory at a distance from the mainland. China has not advanced any claims on Okinawa, for example.
That does not mean that such a change in China’s culture could not happen, but the Chinese culture, based around an agrarian economy and a long tradition of commitment to the domestic economy makes such transformation less likely. Worries of Chinese global military expansion are more products of Westerners in search of a rival—but we should not dismiss then as a 0% risk. Just not that high a risk.
Although China is interested in the international market for arms, it competes for a different sector of that market than Japan does and so its strategies are different. So far China is not selling complex weapons systems, but that day could come. More importantly, because the Chinese economy is less privatized, that is to say there remains a significant part of the military economy which is directly run by the government and not by private corporations. For that reason there is less incentive to make huge profits from military spending in comparison to the cases in Japan or the United States.
There are numerous articles in the American and Japanese press which argue that Chinese politicians are simply using anti-Japanese rhetoric to distract ordinary people from their difficult economic plight and that claim that fanning nationalism is just a trick used by the Chinese government to draw attention away from the declining power of Communist ideology.
Although there is some truth in this argument, it not an accurate representation of the total situation. To start with, such articles assume that the Chinese government uses confrontation with other countries to manipulate its people whereas the American and Japanese governments do not. This ridiculous argument shows up in the media, suggesting that Japan and the United States are advanced countries that have civilized politics that do not engage in such dishonest practices. But in fact both Japan and the United States use tensions abroad to try to distract average people from the problems they face and to keep them from focusing on corruption at home and the efforts of the superrich to increase their fortunes at the cost of everyone else.
China is increasing the size of its military, but it has not shown any interest in developing a global army or navy like the United States and I think it is reasonable to assume that if not provoked, China will not do so. If you have any doubts, just look at the efforts of Japan to militarize an island like Sengaku that is so far from Tokyo and so close to the Chinese mainland. Militarizing that region, which has been largely a Japanese and American effort, is patently provocative. These actions raise very reasonable Chinese concerns in the same way that the US naval base being built by the United States in Jeju Korea, quite close to Shanghai, does.
So if you want to assess whether China’s response to Japan and the United States, is inappropriate, you should ask how the United States would respond if China started to construct a major naval port just off the coast of Los Angeles, say on San Clemente Island? Or what would Japan say if China started sending out destroyers to patrol around Tokyo Bay? My guess is that the United States and Japan would talk about nothing else and consider such an act by China as the equivalent of war. By contrast, Chinese have been much more restrained.
The United States exercised the most extensive and often illegal, influence in South America for one hundred years, an age that ended only recently. Americans felt they were entitled to interfere in the politics of their neighbors for a century, including illegal coups d’états and assassinations. Certainly we do not want China to repeat the mistakes of the United States and Japan. But in a political sense, the United States and Japan really have nothing to say to China concerning how it responds to military buildups right off its coast.
Finally, the nature of trade has changed dramatically over the last thirty years. Trade today for China is a massive part of the domestic economy and China provides basic products at all levels, from cups and pens to shirts, radios and computers to all the countries of the world. China trades on a scale never seen before in human history and thanks to new innovations in logistics, China also relies increasingly on imported raw materials and foodstuff. That shift in trade has altered China’s relationship with the ocean and with the islands around it.
Traditionally the Chinese economy depended relatively little on trade. In fact the Opium War was brought about by Great Britain because it ran a terrible trade deficit with China and needed to find something that Chinese would buy. Opium was the only product that England was able to get Chinese to buy, even if it was illegal. The Opium War was an operation to force China to purchase opium from Britain—to create a need for imports in China. Even if we look at China in the 1970s, the Chinese economy was largely self-sufficient and trade was a minor part of China’s economy.
But in 2014 the situation is quite different. China has grown dependent on revenue from the sales of its manufactured goods around the world. Now that scale is unprecedented in China’s history and in the history of any nation. Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou have emerged as enormous global ports that supply just about everything to the world. At the same time, China is increasingly unable to meet its own needs for food production and depends on imports of food from abroad. Damage to the Chinese environment from spreading deserts, contaminated water and soil and sprawling metropolises is increasing such dependency on trade. The Chinese have foolishly bought into the myth that food security is unimportant if there is sufficient wealth to be generated from trade.
The risks today for China are tremendous. If the United States, or Japan, started some sort of a showdown with China off the coast, in the waters surrounding the Diaoyutai Islands, for example, the risk to China would be enormous. If that showdown stopped the flow of goods into the ports of Shanghai and Tianjin for a month, the consequences would be catastrophic. China is dependent on those shipments by sea for fuel, raw materials, food and of course for the income from its manufactured products. Disruption would immediately impact the market, and would become a major security issue in a short period of time.The conflict would not have to be that large to scare away merchant vessels and end trade, even if it did not mean a war.
Such an unprecedented dependency on trade makes the question of islands far more serious than just nationalist emotions and most Americans, and even many Chinese, do not fully grasp its implication. The slow build-up of American and Japanese military assets in the region is far more destabilizing for China than would have been the case in a previous generation. But although Chinese may have made a major mistake by betting so much on trade for economic development, The idiocy of Japan and the United States willfully seeking out confrontation is more disturbing.
And what is the interest of the United States?
Most Americans have no particular concern with the islands around China. The territory is far away and there is little understanding of the issues concerning the islands among all but a tiny minority of Americans. The average American does not harbor any hostility towards China. The average American town would be happy to receive investment from China. Moreover, Americans consistently see China as a place that offers great opportunities.
It is essentially a powerful minority within the United States military that constantly seeks out confrontation with China. But the United States military, the Department of Defense, is an enormous institution larger than most countries in the world in terms of its budget and assets. Moreover, the Department of Defense controls its own transportation and communications systems, making is self-reliant, the the equivalent of an independent country. There is no power in the Department of Defense that can tell the anti-China factions to stand down. The only thing that can be done is to keep them in check through a complex political dance between factions with different financial and political agendas. The politicians do not want to get involved in this game.
This odd state of affairs causes many misunderstandings. Often outsiders keep guessing as to the psychology of President Obama behind the decisions concerning Asia. But in fact he has little control over what the military does. His job it rather to make it look as if someone is in control.
Although these hawkish groups may not want a war with China, they would love a Cold War that would enrich their patrons through contracts for more fighter planes, ships and other expensive hardware. They have played a complicated and rather short-sighted game of positing China as a future threat because China is the only country that has a large enough military that its presence can be used to justify massive spending on large weapons programs that can make billions of dollars in profits like missile defense, fighter planes, aircraft carriers and military bases. If China were not a threat, there is no reason for any of these expenses.
China has tremendous appeal for the hawks because its mere presence can serve as a justification for arms sales overseas. The military industrial complex continues to hype the threat of Iran as a means to successfully secure massive sales of US weapons to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. As East Asia promises to be the largest arms market for the United States in the future, the temptation is immense to make China the enemy so as to be able to sell more weapons to Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Sadly, because United States foolishly has shipped all of its factories overseas, the only Federal government spending today that actually creates new jobs is military spending. Only military factories remain in the United States. Consequently the positive impact of military spending on the economy creates pressure for arms sales at home and abroad while the rest of the economy collapses. Ironically, the Department of Defense is increasingly becoming a military looking for a war to fight and China is useful to justify expensive weapons and allow the Pentagon to avoid serous reform.
Some companies in the United States have tried to make China into a future enemy while at the same time they are moving factories as fast as possible to China to increase their profits. Such contradictory behavior has created a very strange relationship between China and the United States. Parts of the United States’ establishment is pursuing an antagonistic relationship with China and planning for confrontation. At the same time, corporations (sometimes the same corporations) are making immense profits off by increasing United States dependency on China for manufacturing.
The meeting between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping on June 8, 2013 was viewed by many as representing a major shift in US China relations and a move towards some sort of complex G2 system that could harmonize the needs of the two nations and help the political systems catch up with their fait accompli technological and economic integration. Although that meeting between Obama and Xi did not concern Japan, Japan was the implied topic. In 2012 US exports to China were 1105億 and exports to Japan were 700億. In an age in which policy is made more by budgets and finance (in part because ideological issues are quickly dying off as concerns), Japan is losing its influence in Washington D.C. regardless of what treaties and agreements may say.
Although US officials speak very highly of Japan in all public announcements, the fact is that actual personal relations between the employees of US companies and government agencies and their peers in Japan are extremely limited, often limited to formal official roles. By contrast, Americans have found it far easier to build close relations with Koreans, and also Chinese, regardless of what the anti-China factions in the Pentagon may say. So Japan may be a close ally on paper, but the depth of the relationship is quite limited.
Perhaps the greatest barrier to peace in East Asia is the simple inability of a group in the American military to conceive of a world without a big enemy out there. The unfamiliarity of such a situation is simply unnerving to many policy makers in the United States and is a serious challenge to the political economy of the United States which has become so dependent on an outside threat as the justification for larger-scale investment in technology research. Without an enemy, many Americans see little difference between “computer chips and potato chips” and thus the external threat has become a required part of the system for justifying investment in technology for Americans. The system does not really allow for investment in technology just for its own sake.
There are also worries related to any effort to return the US military that is spread out all over the world to the US mainland. At this point none of the military experts have even considered a scenario in which the US military actually starts to come home, although the Republican candidate Ron Paul suggested such policy would be good. It would make perfect sense for Americans to return home if the tensions in East Asia and the Middle East decrease. But none of the strategic planning going on today even suggests a date at which U.S. troops will come home. The military has grown so large is that there is a certain uneasiness about the prospect of bringing all those soldiers home. There are already serious social problems in the United States related to its constant foreign wars. For example, soldiers who have served abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan frequently become police officers. They treat the Americans that they arrest with the same brutality that they employed when arresting enemy combatants, leading to serious human rights violations in the United States.
Another major problem is that the United States government is losing its best people both to the private sector because salaries are not competitive. The government no longer has the degree of expertise to properly run this global system that it built over the last sixty years. I myself have several very intelligent friends who have quit working for the United States government because they felt so undervalued and exploited. The problem is intimately related to the vast privatization of American society so that large scale organizations are run for profit and the owners try to reduce the cost of labor radically.
The result of these shifts in American society is that the United States is outsourcing its international role in diplomacy and security to other countries. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel have taken on more central roles in the Middle East, France and Germany are increasingly playing roles, including military, in Africa and elsewhere that would have been impossible to imagine a decade ago. In the case of East Asia, there is a growing group in the United States would like to outsource power politics to Japan. Although the assumption that Japan would somehow pursue its role in East Asia in accordance with the priorities of the United States is incredibly naïve, taping Japan to take on the policeman role seems like an extremely convenient solution granted America’s increasing inability to lead in the region.
Finally, a modern sense of nationalism underlies the tensions between China and Japan. Although various interest groups may make use of these islands for their own purposes, the powerful response among ordinary people to islands results from tradition of nationalism, particularly in China and Korea, that has been central to multiple political movements since the late nineteenth century.
I have seen the worst of nationalism in East Asia. I have encountered rather ugly behavior by Koreans, Chinese & Japanese when they blindly assume they know what their country’s history is and they see relations with other countries only in narrow sense of their own country’s interests. I have also had the personal experience of meeting Chinese, Japanese and Koreans who were so blinded by nationalist sentiments that they felt obliged to tell me only about how great their country is that are just meant to impress me.
At the same time, however, I have come to understand the virtues of nationalism. When modern nationalism emerged around the world in the 19th century it was not a product of cultural ignorance, or chauvinism, but rather resulted from a profound need to find some cultural glue that would tie people together at the local level for political action. Local communities then, as is again the case today, were faced with the onslaught of colonial empires and multinational corporations that sought to exploit them. As Lu Xun said famously, “our society is made of sand” 一盘散沙It is not so much that all the stories about the great shared past promoted by nationalists are believed, or were believed, but rather those stories of a great nation 民族 served as the only way to build commonality, to allow Chinese to boycott Japanese companies and their exploitation of China, or Koreans to oppose Japanese incursions. Without nationalist myths, it is difficult to pull people together against a multinational economic and political assault.
Thus nationalism served both as a means to motivate young Japanese to kill and to die for the empire, and yet, at the same time, it also was the only way to motivate Chinese and Koreans to resist that empire. Oddly, in a commercialized society, few are capable of conceiving of the threats of globalization and so often unable to come together in response. It would be sad if nationalism was the only way to achieve that goal, but history is rife with ironies.