North Korea has dominated much of the media’s attention, particularly since the inter-Korean summit on April 27. This has left other areas of Asian geopolitics largely out of the news — including, notably, an apparent thaw between China and Japan.
In recent years, bilateral relations have been tense, in part because the two countries have overlapping territorial claims to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, a set of eight uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
In mid-April, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi traveled to Tokyo — the first such visit in over eight years. This followed an official trip by Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono to Beijing at the end of January, the first in almost two years.
China and Japan have long had rocky relations — but is this a real thaw? Some commentators have emphasized that 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the bilateral Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Others note a distinct “reset” in ties between the two countries.
So what could go wrong? Nationalistic feelings run deep, however.
China and Japan have strong views on territorial sovereignty
Some analysts are wary that 2018 may turn out to be a repeat of 2008, when China’s president, Hu Jintao, met with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in Japan. The two leaders then issued a joint statement that committed both countries to pursue a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.”
The collaborative mood quickly evaporated once a major diplomatic dispute arose in September 2010, when a Chinese trawler collided with a Japanese coast guard patrol boat near the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The territorial dispute is a recurring theme that has often held the bilateral relationship hostage.
The ongoing territorial row, in fact, outweighed practical necessity — it took the two countries almost a decade to reach an agreement to set up a maritime and aerial communication mechanism to prevent accidental encounters. Any optimism about closer ties needs to be tempered with the reality that ongoing territorial sovereignty issues will prevent the two countries from pursuing a genuine thaw in relations.
But nationalism does not mean the two sides will go to war
To be clear, there are reasons to discount the strong sense of nationalism that helps fuel territorial disputes. Governments are not reckless about supporting nationalism. In fact, they prefer to modulate nationalism by playing gatekeeper to activities that may complicate their actions at the bilateral level. In other words, governments are quite discerning about what activities to endorse or to block, even though they all serve the state cause of nationalism. Other scholars, too, have confirmed this behavior of governments selectively tolerating and repressing nationalism.
My research on commodification reveals how the Chinese government modulates nationalism at the commercial level by accepting or rejecting trademarks that explicitly incorporate the name “Diaoyu” in their product or service. In fact, as the territorial spat with Japan deepened in 2012 and 2013, Beijing received a large number of applications with this name. According to the database run by the China Trademark Office under the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, there were 353 such applications in 2012, and 65 in 2013.
Here’s why this uptick took place: Several notable incidents in 2012 had lasting consequences for China-Japan bilateral relations. Activists from Hong Kong had disembarked on one of the disputed islands and anti-Japanese protests swept China after Japanese activists staged their own landing. In September 2012, tensions ran high when the Japanese government “nationalized” a group of islands in the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands chain by purchasing them from a Japanese family. China sent in patrol boats to reassert its sovereign claims.
The bottom line, though, is that Beijing actually didn’t approve a surprising number of trademark applications for “Diaoyu”-related businesses. Roughly half of the applications in 2013 were rejected, while most of those from 2012 are still in adjudication — in part attributable to a very slow bureaucracy. In the end, not only do the trademarks correspond to the trajectory of bilateral tensions, but they also reveal the hidden role of the government in suppressing such tensions.
In short, there’s reason not to view nationalism as a kind of “unbridled” activity with unconditional government support. Instead, it seems that governments are highly conscious about moderating nationalism and gatekeeping commercial activity that might increase tensions.
As a result, conventional assumptions that couple nationalism so tightly to war are overly simplistic. In assessing the situation between China and Japan today, there’s reason to avoid this oversimplification and appreciate the thaw — though territorial sovereignty issues will most certainly dominate the bilateral agenda again.
Jiun Bang is a postdoctoral fellow at the Nam Center for Korean Studies at the University of Michigan.