China and its Discontents

Dissecting the Global Times’ Nationalism

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According to the Financial Times, the Global Times recently published an editorial calling for the Chinese government to revisit the sovereignty of Okinawa as part of the ongoing Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute between Japan and China. China might have good strategic reasons for wanting an independent Okinawa given that the U.S. based nuclear missiles at Okinawa during the Cold War, which were aimed at Beijing and Shanghai (before the U.S. was aware of the Sino-Soviet Split). But the nationalists referred to in the FT article neglect the strategic dimension for the historical, justifying their position instead on the fact that Okinawa was a Chinese tributary state in the 15th Century.

Of course, this is just one instance in which China has used historical artifacts to justify its claims in the many territorial clashes it has with its neighbors. Perhaps the best known instance of this tactic is China’s nine-dash line claim of sovereignty over nearly the entirety of the South China Sea. China’s justification of the nine-dash line is an exercise in studied ambiguity. The territory within the line was first claimed only in 1947 by the then Nationalist government. The PRC continued the Nationalist argument in two ways: 1) Claiming the entire South China Sea and all islands therein using terms such as “sovereign” or “historic” waters that are unsupported by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and 2) Claiming the islands themselves as a basis to claim jurisdiction over territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZ) around those islands, even though EEZs cannot be claimed around islands which support no human habitation or economic activity (which includes most of the islands in question, many of which are little more than bare rocks). China’s extralegal claims not only complicate access rights to fishing and resource extraction, but could also impede the freedom of navigation for the U.S. Navy and others.

China’s claims are dubious on a number of other grounds. To begin with, China’s borders have varied wildly over the course of millennia, and its territorial claims have changed in a much shorter timeframe. As Peter Dutton at the U.S. Naval War College notes, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia have historically all shared access to the South China Sea. Furthermore, even if Beijing’s argument concerning history and tributary states were to stand, China is hardly the only country to have lost former territories over the course of time—most European countries once ruled over areas far beyond their current borders. In this context, China’s claims are no different than modern-day Great Britain laying claim to France because of the House of Plantagenet, or Spain claiming nearly all of Latin America because of its colonial past. Indeed, according to Beijing’s logic, Mongolia can claim the Chinese homeland as its own.

Returning to the Global Times op-ed (which appears to have only been published in Chinese, not English), it is clear that the editorial is mainly about the Diaoyu Islands, not Okinawa. The op-ed proclaims: “In China’s struggle over the Diaoyu Islands problem, Japan does not have any hope of winning. China has sufficient resources and means, and enough official and public will to confront Japan over the Diaoyu Islands,” continuing with a four-point bulletin on how to do so (which includes increasing China’s naval presence in the area and enlisting the help of the Taiwanese). And then at the very end, the editorial mentions “revisit[ing] Okinawan sovereignty”—but it seems like the author (Hu Xijin, perhaps?) only really means for it to be a psychological ploy to “curb Japan’s attitude over the Diaoyu Islands.

But this is all your average, every-day kind of talk among nationalists in China. What was really surprising was the final conclusion: “Of course, China does not have to actively make life difficult for Japan and squeeze China and Japan into a confrontation at the point of a bull’s horn. China doesn’t need Japan to be friendly—it only has to play out the results of its chess game with Japan, and be bold enough to use its strength to bring Japan to its senses…After a few rounds, Japan will reconsider its proper behavior.”

Chinese nationalists can’t possibly believe this. Calling for irrational and provocative military action is one thing—but expecting Japan and probably the rest of the Western Pacific to react as tributary states of yore? This is a serious misappraisal of the intentions of those countries involved with China in territorial disputes. This sort of thinking, if anyone in power actually believes it, will not only detonate what little cooperation on territorial disputes that still exists, but might actually lead to military conflict. This sort of hubris isn’t unique to China—it seems pretty similar to the Bush administration’s prediction that the Iraqis would ‘greet us as liberators’ in 2003. But it didn’t belong in any government’s rhetoric then and it doesn’t now.