By Wang Gungwu, Published The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2012
NATIONALISM is a controversial phenomenon. There is no consensus on how to define it, but what is not in doubt is that aggressive nationalism is dangerous to peace and reason.
Nationalism has surfaced again in recent disputes in the East and South China seas. The slogans used to express its manifestation vary, and some of them are indistinguishable from the emotive cries associated with chauvinism, racism, xenophobia and ethnic hatred. In the minds of those who utter such calls, the louder and ruder they are, the more they are advancing nationalism.
The word originated among the European states. From their history, the example of Germany shows that advancing from the romantic urge to make German culture a political force during the 19th century to the aggression that destroyed the nationalist regime in the 20th was a very short step.
In Asia, nationalism emerged only after being introduced to the modern nation-state. When the Japanese leaders discovered that it was one of the weapons of Western wealth and power, they employed it to reshape the Meiji state. This was a path that gained wide support and the nation became richer and stronger. But the politicians lost control to the militarists, and Japan followed Germany's lead to the expansionism that brought tragedy to millions throughout the region.
Japan's success inspired the Chinese, who turned to nationalism to remove the extraterritorial rights of imperial powers on Chinese soil. This was done to make China more like a nation-state. Elsewhere, opposition to colonial rule spread and nationalism has been the foundation of nation- building efforts all over Asia ever since the 1950s.
The nationalism of the weak and bullied peoples of Asia was widely supported and gained much sympathy everywhere. For China, Sun Yat-sen's call for nationalism to overthrow the Manchu Qing dynasty was an example of that, but he and his successors were soon reminded how fearful various ethnic minorities within the country were of Great Han chauvinism. So Chinese officials sought to develop an inclusive new nation that respected the autonomy of its minority peoples.
Japanese nationalists used their power to expand their empire on the mainland. The Chinese suffered greatly from their aggression, and the longer they had to fight the Japanese, the stronger their nationalism became.
This was a popular cause and the people rallied behind their leaders. Defending the integrity of the Chinese nation also gained international sympathy and respect. By 1945, anti-Japanese nationalism had taken root and still remains the trigger in Chinese nationalism today.
In contrast, attitudes within China towards the United States, despite American anti-Chinese discrimination, were not highlighted. Perhaps surprisingly, there was in China mostly goodwill and admiration for Americans until the communist victory in 1949. It was acknowledged that the US was a wartime ally that enabled China to emerge as a power with veto rights in the United Nations Security Council. Later American interventions in Chinese politics did lead to distrust by the protagonists in the civil war, but there was little ill will against the US among the bulk of the people.
The communists used anti-American rhetoric to counter US support for the Kuomintang government and attacked the US-led intervention in the Korean War. Indeed, the government in Beijing worked hard to arouse anti-American outbursts during the 1950s, but much of the response among the Chinese was skin-deep.
A few years before Mao Zedong died in 1976, he welcomed Richard Nixon to China and diplomatic activities involving closer relations with the US have since been conducted with great thoughtfulness. Public displays of anger against the US, like the demonstrations following the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, were exceptional, and have been kept under control.
So why is nationalism advancing to such emotional heights today?
The "history war" has coloured everything in Sino-Japanese relations. Although Japanese leaders have been committed to peace since 1945, the Chinese are wary of those Japanese who are still trying to justify their invasion of China and look out for any action that reminds them of modern Sino-Japanese history.
But does the same apply to the South China Sea? All the states involved are much smaller and obviously weaker, and none has ever bullied China. Everything there suggests that reason should prevail and peaceful resolutions are possible.
Here, the renewal of direct American interest in the disputed claims has come at a sensitive time for China. Leadership change is taking place at a time when there are reports of strife in the Communist Party, when corruption, dissent and distrust of the law are growing at the same time as Chinese pride that the country's military power is greater than it has been for centuries. Most of all, Chinese perceptions of American decline have combined with the belief that American planners are actively preparing to contain China.
The Beijing government has never hesitated to curb dissent, but nationalist calls against Japan and the US are difficult to control. As for those made by Chinese outside the realm, they are simply out of range. Thus, dissenters who claim to love their country, but not its government, see that they can advance their nationalism ever further.
Outbursts of anger and irrationality can be calmed, but only by leaders whom people trust to put the nation above their vested interests. Chinese nationalism in itself is not the cause of the current tensions in the East and South China seas. The culprits are, on the one hand, perceptions of weak and divided leadership in Japan and China and, on the other, divisions within the region about the role the US can play against an unexpectedly strong China.
In the face of uncertain changes to the security alignments that were established when the US was ubiquitously dominant, the greatest need is for cool judgment by wise leaders.
There is no place for advancing nationalism and ardent nationalist displays can only be enemies to peace in the region.
The writer is a University Professor at the National University of Singapore, and chairman of the managing board of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.