The situation in East Asia is tense. Japan and China, two of the most powerful countries in the world, are locked in a bitter dispute over eight tiny, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The volatility of the issue -- compounded by the fact that the waters around the islands are rich in natural resources -- is such that it’s hard to know what will happen next. But there’s one prediction that I would already dare to make. I don’t think that this lingering feud bodes well for the fate of liberal democracy in the region.
The two sides can’t even agree over what the islands are called: They’re known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese, as the Senkakus to the Japanese. The argument over who has ultimate control over them has now boiled over, sending tens of thousands of angry Chinese into the streets in more than 85 cities. Some of those protestors have turned into rioters, attacking Japanese visitors or setting Japanese-operated businesses on fire. The government in Beijing recently dispatched six surveillance ships into Japanese-claimed waters around the islands, prompting fears about a possible clash between the two antagonists. One Chinese newspaper even called for launching nuclear missiles at Japan if it doesn’t concede sovereignty.
The rising tensions have led some to wonder about the possibility of war between the two countries. But even if it doesn’t come to that, the consequences are potentially devastating. Trade between the two countries is now worth some $345 billion a year. Some Japanese factories in China have already cut back on production due to the political instability. Chinese demonstrators have been calling for a boycott of Japanese goods. Anything that slows down the flow of goods and services between the two countries is a bad idea at a time when both are struggling to keep their economies chugging along.
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This is not the first dispute over the islands, and in the past Beijing and Tokyo have always managed to pull back from the brink. But this time, matters are complicated by the delicate political situation on both sides of the East China Sea. In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is struggling to break through political gridlock in order to realize his reform agenda, and he can’t afford to be outflanked by the conservative opposition. That’s why he recently instructed the government to purchase three of the islands from their private owners. (The alternative was to cede the ground to the right-wing mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who had threatened to purchase the islands in the name of the city, thus scoring points among nationalists.) Noda’s move, which was actually an attempt to defuse the situation, nonetheless poured fuel on the fire of anti-Japan sentiment in China.
The People’s Republic, meanwhile, has problems of its own. The economy is slowing. Discontent over blatant corruption and widening inequality continues. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is preparing for its biggest political transition in more than a decade -- a transition has already been complicated by the scandal surrounding toppled Politburo member Bo Xilai and the recent mysterious disappearance of president-to-be Xi Jinping. There are plenty of rumors swirling around about the growing influence of hard-line nationalists in the military and elsewhere who are eager to impose their own agenda as a new generation of leaders prepares to assume power. If you’re a candidate for one of the top posts, this is not a good time to look like you’re kowtowing to the Japanese.
So why do I think that this won’t help democracy? It’s simple. Unchecked nationalism has a way of rolling over liberal aspirations. That’s because the intense emotions of identity politics have a way of stifling the tolerance that is one of the most fundamental of democratic principles.