Setting the record straight

On the sidelines of the APEC summit in Hanoi, Japanese Foreign Minister Aso Taro and Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhao Xing discussed plans to convene a joint Sino-Japanese committee to review Sino-Japanese history. The committee is expected to meet before the end of the year, consist of ten members, and have subcommittees that discuss both ancient and recent history. The committee will present its findings by 2008.

This committee could have value — but I’m doubtful, because, as an op-ed in the IHT (not online, so far as I can tell) by Brookings visiting fellow Masahiro Matsumura notes, nationalism has proven politically useful to both governments. In particular, he writes about China, “The Chinese do not have a deeply entrenched sense of national identity. Instead China is divided by competing regional, ethnic and class identities The Japan history question is an issue on which all Chinese can reach consensus and on which a temporary and precarious sense of unity can be fabricated.”

In other words, Chinese nationalism — which has become more virulent as the country has developed — may be a necessary and unpleasant evil preferable to the alternative, namely a China on the brink of splintering due to intense internal pressures, some of which have been exasperated by China’s rapid growth. Beijing criticizes Japan for historical misdeeds for which Tokyo has apologized repeatedly because it is too politically useful for it to refrain from doing so.

The CCP’s mounting of the tiger of nationalism may ultimately result, however, in dire consequences for the CCP itself and for surrounding nations. Should the CCP be perceived as failing to protect the Chinese nation’s (where do the minorities fit in this China), will the party’s standing be diminished, perhaps fatally so? Will it drive more adventurous forays abroad, whether in the Taiwan Strait or in the waters surrounding Japan?

Perhaps a joint committee could be useful as a tool for helping Beijing dismount from its nationalist mount, but if that is the case, Beijing has a lot of work to do in the next two years to dampen nationalist sentiment among its people.

Hey CCP, good luck walking that tightrope. Better find a new raison d’etre.

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