The China-Japan conflict: it’s not just the Islands

Perspectives Internationales 16/02/2013 0

For the last forty years, China tirelessly disputed Japan’s sovereignty over the small, rocky and potentially energy-riched Diaoyu/Senkaku islands located in the East China Sea. Now that tensions have reached their climax in the past weeks, Anastas Vangeli gives us an in-depth analysis about the nationalist factor used between the two protagonists.

The Diaoyu Islands, as they call them in China – in Japan known as the Senkaku Islands, and formerly called the Pinnacle Islands by British sailors, and for the sake of political correctness we will call them here just the Islands – are five uninhabited, tiny portions of land, and three rocks. They are located in the East China Sea west of Okinawa, and north of Taiwan. However, as tiny as their physical size may be (a total area of roughly seven square kilometers), the Islands have grown to have a disproportionate level of importance in the national imagination of the East Asian nations that claim them.

The Islands have been the underlying reason for an on-and-off dispute between China and Japan for decades now. The dispute, however, escalated in 2012 when the Japanese government nationalized some of the Islands, which had previously been privately owned, thus reestablishing sovereignty over them. Political clashes, massive riots in China, and war threats have followed. Nowadays, military ships cruise the East China Sea, while notable voices both in Beijing and Tokyo beat heavily the drums of war. It is framed as a matter of sovereignty, so we can put on hold the “peaceful rise” rhetoric of Beijing. In Japan, this comes at a time when politicians are re-thinking Article 9 of the Constitution that prevents the state from entering war. Military ships frequent the waters around the islands, while the voices of peace (such as the ones of Japanese adult video stars) remain marginalized.

The dispute itself is rooted in the conflicting historical narratives regarding possession of the Islands. Dating back multiple centuries, there are historical accounts of the Chinese presence around the islands. Since the late nineteenth century however, the Islands have been annexed by the Meiji Empire, during the process of territorial expansion and the conquest of Okinawa. After the defeat in the Second World War, the Okinawa and the surrounding islands and archipelagos (including the disputed Islands) were put under the administration of the US. The United States then returned these territories to full Japanese administration in 1971/72. It was in that particular moment that China saw an opportunity to dispute Japanese claims of sovereignty over the Islands, and thus the feud unveiled.

Beijing claims the Islands had been inalienable part of China since times immemorial, and considers them to be part of the territory that China lost to the Japanese Empire. Subsequently, Beijing contends that the return of the Islands follows the precedent of the return of other territories in the aftermath of the Second World War. Additionally, besides China and Japan, the dispute has involved two side actors – Hong Kong and Taiwan, which are also strong proponents of the Chinese continuity narrative. The Islands have a bonding capacity when it comes to devising a Greater China national narrative.

The maritime area around the Islands is believed to be rich in hydrocarbon resources, a hypothesis historically seen as one of the motives behind the China’s claim of sovereignty. An important role in the dispute will be played by the United States, whose geopolitical focus under the Obama presidency has shifted towards the Pacific. All of this adds to the geopolitical weight of the topic. However, this paper tries to examine things through the variable of good old nationalism, and leave strategic aspects aside, as they have been extensively covered elsewhere.

The rhetoric seen in the dispute from its beginnings, and especially in its latest eruption (2012 – ongoing), centers on the symbolic, rather than the material gains or losses that come with the ownership of the islands. It is also underlined by the themes of (overcoming) humiliation, (self) victimization – all of which is being framed by references to the past antagonism between China and Japan. On top of that comes an obsession with borders, demarcation of the national space, as well as exercising sovereignty. At the end of the day, it is not about the Islands – it is about pride, and what many Chinese and Japanese consider unfinished business from decades ago.

Of course this is a generalization, but nevertheless: China and Japan work as nation-states in the most traditional sense of the word, and their politics are very much rooted in certain principles of modern nationalism. In terms of their foreign policy, they are obsessed with borders, and safeguarding those borders. “National interest,” often encompassing issues beyond material or strategic gains, and excluding the interest of anyone beyond the nation in question, is a guiding principle. Patriotism is something that is taught in school and narrated in public space, often in an emotional way. Moreover, both China and Japan run on imperial legacies and theories of national, if not racial superiority, as well as on legacies of degradation, humiliation and unjust treatment by history. At the same time, China and Japan are each other’s antipodes: they have a record of war and conflict (and victimization) that is still a source of contention, and apologies for events that occurred ages ago are still due (more so on the Japanese side). The absence of war, as well as any gesture to appease the other state in the past, has been continuously framed as a sacrifice that has not been reciprocated by the other side.

This last point is especially important when one analyzes the evolution of Japan, which was thought to have a case for being the first global pacifist power – yet now undergoes re-militarization and pursues much bolder diplomatic goals. The latest developments resemble a complete turn-around in the official rhetoric of Tokyo and in fact mark a process of devising a strategic culture that mirrors the one of China: utilizing the images of the past, and especially the sense of humiliation, for the purpose of national mobilization (French, 2012). At the same time, Japan adopts a more assertive regional policy – while its conflict with China is seething, it has reached out to Southeast Asian nations; at the same time Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2012) has also called the democracies of the world, and especially the democracies in the Asia-Pacific to back Japan in its struggle against China – proposing a security diamond comprised of Japan, Australia, India, and the US state of Hawaii.* * *

The “going to war hypothesis”

Polarization of course is not unique to China and Japan, as territorial and other kinds of disputes between nations and states exist elsewhere on the planet – especially where ethnic nationalism is the source of political legitimacy. Here we can borrow from the broader base of knowledge we have in the field of nationalism studies.

An important variable in Sino-Japanese relations analysis, and something that reiterates the “going to war hypothesis,” is the narration of history by using what Levinger and Lyttle (2001) call “the triadic structure of nationalist rhetoric.” Basically, history-centered ethnic nationalism results in a cyclical narration that has three elements: a) the memory of the lost Golden Age, b) the frustration and the feeling of degradation/victimization, and c) seeking renewal/redemption.

But let’s see how this triadic rhetoric fuels tension in practice.

The mythologization and idealization of particular time spans from the past, when the nation was said to be at its peak, in terms of both culture and political power, is the invention of a “Golden Age.” There are several such instances in the Chinese national narration (in fact, Chinese historians often use the qualifier “Golden Age” without any inhibitions to denote certain periods from the past): the Western Han dynasty, the Tang dynasty, the Ming dynasty, and eventually the early Qing period. The Japanese counterparts are the Asuka period, the Heian period, or the Momoyama period; however, above all else, the Japanese imagine the Meiji restoration as their essential Golden Age – which essentially was a period of rapid modernization and ascent on the international stage.[1]

The past of course, is malleable according to one’s preferences. When talking about these Golden Ages, the exact historic events perhaps do not even matter that much. What matters is the memories (or the myths) of grandeur. They are complementary with the discourse of national (and often racial) superiority; they are comparable to the narratives from the rest of the world – for example, it is often reiterated that during the Ming dynasty, China was faring much better than Europe (which at the time was in its own Dark Age); during its own Golden Age, Japan had made the case for a regional domination and had become a global power that shook up the old world order. At the same time, this has a particular meaning for the bilateral relations: the Golden Age of China shaped the culture of Japan, and subdued Japan; Golden Age Japan subdued and bossed China. A Golden Age for one of the sides, implies a decline of the other, thus implying that the two are diametrically opposed.

Such construction of the glorious past is not only the crafting of a story that will legitimize the nation and create sense of pride and bonding among its members, but it is also used to set the bar of what each nation is capable of doing in the future – as such, it provides a goal worth fulfilling: and that goal is reclaiming the status the nation had once upon a time. In this sense the only true measure of national grandeur has to be attributed with an ability, to put it colloquially, to fully exercise the “national interest” and boss around its neighbors. For Golden Age China and Golden Age Japan the rightful, successful, and undisputed claim of the Islands would not be a challenge – they would do it because they could do it.

The glorious past, however, regardless of its duration and peculiarities, is, by nature, a past epoch. Often the reasons for its fall or fading away have been perceived as a historical injustice or simply an interruption of the spontaneous flow of history caused by an external factor. The Golden Age can be shiny and special only when it is followed by the complete opposite; it can be of note only if it was lost; it can be a source of motivation only if it now has to be restored. Hence, every Golden Age is buried in the ashes of a subsequent Dark Age, a period of national degradation, humiliation and victimization.

The “century of humiliation” assumption 

This is particularly visible in the case of China. As Callahan (2004) argues, humiliation is one of the most central narratives of Chinese nationalism and national history, and as such, is ubiquitous in the public sphere. All the functions of the humiliation rhetoric – shame, guilt and insecurity, accompanied by longing for the times of glory – could be seen in political speeches, history textbooks or the rhetoric of the common people. In fact, humiliation is one of the foundations of the People’s Republic of China – as Chairman Mao Zedong said during the establishment of the PRC back in 1949: “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation.”

By far the most potent historical narrative in China today, the so called “century of humiliation,” an umbrella-term that encompasses foreign invasions, unequal treaties, failed modernization attempts, and civil wars. The foreign, external element is crucial, as it is always an outside force that ruins the glorious Empires.

Japan plays a central role as the arch-enemy and the constitutive “Other” of the Chinese within this humiliation framework. Japan defeated China, and in the view of many Chinese (and non-Chinese alike), it totally humiliated it; it invaded it, conquered it, and slayed its citizens. This trauma still echoes in contemporary China, and is an important driving force of Chinese nationalism.

Much of the politics of remembrance and the sentiments of humiliation and grief in China boil down in “The Memorial Hall for Compatriots killed in the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese

Forces of Aggression.” As someone who comes from a region (the Balkans) with a recent history of war and ethnic conflict, and who has a small, yet nevertheless solid background in peace-building, reconciliation, and facing the past – the Nanjing Memorial is a site that amazes with its political charge. The Memorial itself is built on the location where remains of the victims had been unearthed; besides skeletons, it exhibits plenty of multimedia material, testimonies and comments on the event. Its architecture, which resembles a mass graveyard, is minimally illuminated and is overwhelmingly dark, both in terms of color and rhetoric. The discourse of the exhibition is declared as a reconciliation-oriented one – yet one is left with a different impression after seeing the countless references to the number 300,000; the repeated use of phrases such as “never forget” or “remember;” and the highly emotional narration, using a lot of attributions (e.g. “fascist atrocity of bestiality strangling humanity and smothering civilization;” “Japanese devils” and so on, inscribed on the walls of the Memorial).

The narratives of humiliation, degradation and victimization are very potent source for the arousal of  national solidarity; they can also serve to mobilize people as they impose the obligation of redemption, and national renewal. Interestingly enough, the restoration narrative is highly noticeable in the rhetoric of the new General Secretary of the CCP, Xi Jinping. The newly elected Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe runs on a similar, “tired from apologizing” rhetoric full of indignation.

The restoration discourse can have its vindictive aspects as well. As one Chinese scholar had put it – to restore its pride, China will have to somehow get back at Japan – in the best case scenario, only by dwarfing it economically and in terms of soft power. The Islands dispute, as that scholar interestingly said, might not be the adequate arena for a duel, but it is the best proxy arena it can get (as an eventual military showdown in the Sea could be contained and the damage can be controlled).

A new coercitive Japanese nationalism in the near future?

 In Japan, the humiliation sentiment had been reflected in a different way. Once an overly aggressive military force, post-war Japan was exposed to international pressure and shaming for its acts of terror; it was also the only country ever to suffer nuclear bombing. As a consequence to the defeat and the disgrace of the Second World war, Japan rapidly demilitarized; however, it did not give up the narrative of national growth and redemption. Instead of pursuing the traditional way to higher power, Japan mitigated the loss of the military valor with economic growth and development.

However, the last several years have seen a resurgence of nationalism in Japanese politics, and more importantly, the populous has seen rising discontent with the country’s pacifism, especially in the face of China’s rise (including the manifestation of its new-found military prowess). Increasingly, the decades of demilitarization are now reinterpreted as decades of containment of Japan.  The apologies to its neighbors are now seen as a manifestation of weakness.  A piece by Toshio Nishi (2012) says it all:

Japan has been apologizing since the summer of 1945; apologizing to its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific and to the United States. […] Don’t the Japanese get sick and tired of our same miserable behavior? Yes, we do. Indeed, a proverbial swing has moved a little toward the center, and Japan has become assertive and recently proclaimed ownership for some little rocks sticking out of the water in the Sea of Japan.

Unlike China, Japan has been more cautious with the use of the narratives of the Imperial past and the seeking of restoration, especially in the international arena (there are a myriad of nationalist movements at home). It had silently accepted the penalties imposed by the Allies, given up the expansionist discourse, and has apologized for the acts of terror to China, Korea and the United States. The apologies, nevertheless, had been often considered incomplete, as many of the internationally indicted class-A war criminals that served for the Japanese Empire are enshrined in the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, a site that is central to Japanese nationalism. The Shrine itself is a contentious site for Japanese politicians, and even more so when it comes to Japan’s foreign relations – and even though official visits are now rare, the honoring of war criminals is a major obstacle for completing the reconciliation with China.

On a broader level, Japan has reproduced its own victimization narrative and a sort of “soft” nationalism that was framed as a nostalgia for the traditional values and national morality (McVeigh, 2001). The humiliation narrative was centered around the nuclear attacks, and in general on the narrative that Japan payed too high price for whatever it has done in the past. As McVeigh (2001) further points out, nationalist sentiments (and resentment), and a sense of national honor and self-righteousness had been present pretty much in every sphere of Japanese policy-making; and it is only now, due to a myriad of reasons (including the economic crisis and the rise of China) that they come to the surface.

For Chinese nationalists, the Islands dispute is an opportunity to reverse a historical injustice. When Chinese rioters burnt Japanese stores and called on war with Japan in the Fall of 2012, they certainly had been equally, if not more intensively thinking of the horrors of seventy years ago, rather than on the uninhabited rocks far away in the Sea. When China surpassed Japan as a number two global economy in 2010, this was not a simple economic achievement, but had a decidedly symbolic value. These same events have a different meaning in Japan – they are instances of the China threat in practice, and a reminder of Japan’s sacrifices in the past several decades.

A solution for the Sino-Japanese dispute, in which the Islands are just the trigger, is almost impossible to find. For one, it cannot be crafted within the current framework of historical burdens, sentiments of resentment, and obsession with borders, all of which constitutes national pride as a zero-sum game. Expanding mutual cooperation and interaction will certainly improve the relations and will help in reducing the chances of an eventual military clash; however, for a sustainable solution to be found, Chinese and Japanese political elite will need to make a cognitive step beyond the state-centric rhetoric, abolish the idea of historical continuity and inherited rights and obligations (again, most of the bloodshed between China and Japan happened decades, if not centuries ago and today’s citizens have nothing to do with them), and embrace the idea of transnational (if not global) common good as superior to the so called “national interest.”

When put like this, these challenges are applicable to every other state in the world.

Anastas Vangeli

Anastas Vangeli (MA) is a researcher on Chinese politics, Sino-European affairs, and nationalism. He is currently a graduate student at the Renmin University of China in Beijing.


Callahan, William. “National Insecurities: Humiliation, Salvation, and Chinese Nationalism.” Alternatives 29 (2004), pp. 199–218.

French, Tom. Narratives of Humiliation: Chinese and Japanese Strategic Culture (2012, ISN Zurich)

Levinger, Matthew and Paula Franklin Lyttle. “Myth and mobilization: the triadic structure of nationalist rhetoric”, Nations and Nationalism 7 (2), 2001 : 175-194.

 McVeigh, Brian J. Postwar Japan’s “Hard” and “Soft Nationalism” (2001, Japan Policy Research Institute) <>

Shinzo Abe. Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond (2012, Project Syndicate) <>

Toshio Nishi. The New Japanese Nationalism (2012, Defining Ideas / Hoover Institution) <>

[1]    A prerequisite for talking about a Golden Age, is of course, devising a narrative a continuity. Even though nations and states are modern phenomena, one tends to think especially of the East Asian nations as somewhat exceptional. China is always portrayed as having “5000 years of history”; Japan little less. The link of what is now and what was centuries ago remains unquestioned. The fact that contemporary China and contemporary Japan are rather the result of breaking up with the past and embracing modernity are conveniently ignored.

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