China’s overbearing approach towards maritime expansion mainly in the East China Sea and the South China Sea is causing a significant concern for Japan and the neighboring countries. Why does China continue to pursue changes to the status quo through coercive measures, even if it will lead to the deterioration of its relations with the countries of the region and attract criticism from the United States?
The Party’s legitimacy and the two types of nationalism
China’s political system is a one-party dictatorship controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP plays a dominant role in the policy making and, therefore, its power is guaranteed by the current authoritarian political system. Although the CCP attempts to be forcing the people to accept the rule of the party by using the security apparatus including the People’s Liberation Army and the Public Security Police, it is difficult to maintain its regime just through this method of suppression.
The CCP, under whose rule no free and fair election is allowed, needs thus other ways to ensure the legitimacy of its monopolistic ruling of the country. The key pillar to this end is to strive for achieving the goals that are demanded by nationalism.
There are two different types of nationalism in the Chinese society of today. One is the “Nation State Nationalism”: it seeks the independence and reunification of China. The CCP tries to present itself as the only fitting instrument to this goal, first of all by highlighting as its own achievement the success in the war to become independent from Japan (1937-45) as well as the victory against the Kuomintang in the Chinese civil war – the conflict between the Communists and the Nationalists that tore the country apart in the first half of 20th Century. Furthermore, the party is also claiming that – in order to achieve the unification of China by recovering Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands and Spratly (Nansha) Islands, which are “lost territories” – the strong leadership of the Communist Party is crucial.
The other nationalism is the “Middle Kingdom Nationalism” that is characteristic to China. Underlying this Middle Kingdom Nationalism is the historical sense of superiority implying that during the thousands of years of East Asia’s history Chinese civilization has constantly played a central role. According to this vision, the Chinese empire has always reigned as the paramount leader in maintaining regional order.
The Middle Kingdom Nationalism desires not only for China to be a major power, but also wants it to be the great power that overwhelms other countries in East Asia; it needs then the reconstruction of an order where China sits on top. The Xi Jinping administration has put up a slogan “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” and this makes part of the effort to enforce the legitimacy of CCP’s authoritarian rule, as an answer to the Middle Kingdom Nationalism sentiment that requests the restoration of a Sinocentric regional order.
Japan: a major obstacle to the Sinocentric order
For the Chinese Communist Party places importance on these two types of nationalism, Japan naturally becomes its greatest target of criticism. Holding a massive military parade to mark the 70th Anniversary of victory against Japan (September 3, 2015), and the reinforcement of the challenge against Japan’s territorial rights of the Senkaku Islands, are actions to meet the demands of Nation State Nationalism. Moreover, although Japan has been the only developed country to have represented economic leadership in East Asia since the World War II, the aim of Middle Kingdom Nationalism is for China to overtake the Japanese position in these aspects.
The establishment in 2014 of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB, already joined by several European and Asian countries, but not Japan) overlaps the existing regional financial institution, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), created in 1966 through an American-Japanese initiative. It can be seen as the first step for China to achieve this goal.
Furthermore, Japan poses a major obstacle to China’s efforts in restoring Sinocentric order in the region, in that Japan is an ally of the United States and the existing order in East Asia is maintained by the military presence of the United States. Washington is supporting Taiwan in its efforts to defend itself, is committed to the security of Japan and the Philippines as an ally, and is strengthening its relationship with Vietnam and other countries in the South China Sea. The strong influence the United States has over East Asia provides the countries in the region with options to resist the growing pressure by China.
Japan is the greatest ally that supports the presence of the U.S. Forces in East Asia. To the CCP aiming to gain a hegemonic position in the region, Japan is obviously a major obstruction. The recent revisions of the guidelines for defense cooperation between the U.S and Japan, allowing Tokyo to play more proactive roles for the regional security, are not good news for Beijing.
Tokio feeling the pressure
Additionally, the Chinese Communist Party views universal values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and rules of law that are the basis of existing regional order as something that endangers its one-party political system and regards them as enemies. For the communist regime that takes the view that in the background of the movement criticizing the CCP in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, there is a string being pulled by the opposition faction in the West such as the United States and Japan, the existing order led by United States and Japan is something that in principle it cannot accept. For this reason, the CCP is making every effort in promoting the change of the current regional order.
With the purpose of restoring Sinocentric order in the region as an answer to the two types of nationalism, the critical issue for the CCP is to compel Japan to accept the superiority of China. So in order to try to extract concessions from Japan as regards issues surrounding the Senkaku Islands, and to aim at weakening the Japan-U.S. alliance, China will not only apply economic and military pressure on Japan, but also reinforce the international propaganda that takes up historical issues.
This article is a version of a commentary originally published here.