SINGAPORE — China, South Korea and Indonesia have seen a rise of nationalism commensurate with their increasing economic confidence. The rise in national- ism can also be traced to historical humiliations suffered by China and South Korea a century or more ago, and to Indonesia’s ordeal in the Asian financial crisis (1997-98). Hurt national pride has been dictating their reactions to the West and to their neighbors.
Chinese nationalism, which is targeted primarily against the West and Japan, is driven by the defeat of Manchu dynasty-ruled China in 1895 by Japan, the Japanese Imperial Army’s occupation of large parts of China in the 1930s, and the “unequal treaties” forced onto a weakened China by Western powers since the opium wars of the mid-19th century. In fact, when Beijing was given the honor of hosting the 2008 Olympics, it was celebrated as a victory with the slogan “The Chinese people have stood up again!”
The Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Universal Exhibition aim to showcase a China that has finally arrived on the world stage. The return of Hong Kong in 1997 marked the beginning of recovering national sovereignty and dignity.
Beijing has insisted on doing things its way — from promoting socialism “with Chinese characteristics” to resisting pressure from American and Western speculators to raise the value of the yuan. Moreover, China is officially trying to revive past glories of its civilization and reopening Confucianist temples across China and in South Korea.
Chinese nationalism seems, in part, to be a reaction to the concerns of Japan and the United States, which Beijing believes are trying to thwart China’s emergence as a regional and world power. Recent riots in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chengdu attest to this. But Chinese leaders must also be mindful of the risks. Chinese opinion, once whipped into a xenophobic frenzy, could boomerang and end up challenging the Communist monopoly in power, thus provoking political instability.
South Korea, meanwhile, is locked in a bitter dispute with Japan over the sovereignty of the Takeshima (Tok-do in Korean) islets in the Sea of Japan. This controversy was sparked by Shimane Prefecture’s declaration of Feb. 22 as Takeshima Day, beginning next year. Japan is perceived by Seoul as trying to reverse the gains made following 35 years of Korean humiliation suffered during the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula (1910-45). There is also the issue of Japan’s claims to some of the territorial waters around the islets, which are undoubtedly rich in fisheries.
On March 8, Seoul sent four jet fighters to intercept a light Japanese plane that entered airspace above the islets, and then canceled the visit of its foreign minister to Tokyo amid a flareup of anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea. Moreover, in a speech to Parliament, South Korean President Roh Moon Hyun recently reopened the issue of Japanese reparations, although, according to Tokyo, this was legally settled in their 1965 bilateral peace treaty.
The dispute follows Seoul’s softer approach to Pyongyang, just as Tokyo hardens its attitude because of what it sees as North Korea’s unsatisfactory accounting of Japanese nationals abducted to the North in the 1970s and ’80s. This difference in dealing with Pyongyang could complicate six-party talks in Beijing.
As Seoul moves progressively away from Washington toward a more neutral position vis-a-vis a looming U.S.-China tussle (which is shaping up to be the most important world trend in the next two decades), the latest South Korean-Japanese friction does not augur well for stability and diplomacy in Northeast Asia.
In Indonesia’s spat with Malaysia, the Indonesian elite seek to redress the humiliation imposed on the country by the International Monetary Fund during the Asian financial crisis in 1998. The photo of then IMF chief Michel Camdessus, with folded arms, watching a weakened Suharto bend down to sign Indonesia’s agreement with the IMF is held up as an example of the IMF’s and the West’s “displaced arrogance” toward Jakarta. With Suharto’s fall, Indonesia lost its traditional ASEAN leadership role, which President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono now appears to be trying to restore.
Today Yudhoyono sees his legitimacy and power coming from the 60 percent-plus of popular votes he received last September rather than from Indonesia’s fractious political parties. Thus righting national humiliation takes on added proportions. After the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster, the TNI (Indonesian military) along with Islamic political parties called for an early withdrawal of, as well as limited intervention by, foreign military teams sent to Aceh to provide relief. Yudhoyono’s dispatch of four F-16s and seven warships to Ambalat in the Sulawesi Sea paralleled resentment felt over the recent mass expulsion of illegal Indonesian workers by Malaysia and over the loss to Malaysia of two islands, Ligitan and Sipadan, in a December 2002 International Court of Justice decision.
The governments of China, South Korea and Indonesia must handle the “righting of past wrongs” with extreme care, as political and social stability could be threatened if they lose control over nationalistic trends.
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