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The Problem of Uncontrolled Nationalism: The Case of Japan before the WWII

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Authors: Chan Kung and Yu(Tony) Pan*

Throughout the modern history of the world, Japan is undoubtedly an interesting country: it went from the edge of becoming a colony to one of few independent countries in Asia before World War II, and after the Great War, Japan even became a great power. From a broader level, Japan’s success at that time showed that Asians were not inherently inferior to Westerners. Unfortunately, Japan which was supposed to be the leader of Asia to a bright future, chose the path fascism and imperialism. Eventually, Japan became the source of the Pacific War.

It is undeniable that from the Meiji Restoration until the early Showa period (the end of World War II), Japan adapted an expansionary policy, which brought deep suffering to its neighboring countries and ultimately dragged itself into the abyss of destruction. When World War II ended, nearly 70 years of development achievements were utterly wiped out by the war.

In this context, an important question we need to ponder is: What led Japan to embark on an expansionary and self-destructive path? At what point in time did Japan’s policymakers start to lose its mind? What can future generations of nations learn from Japan’s tragic experience to prevent the same fate from happening again? As a country that has been entangled with Japan for generations and has a complicated relationship with Japan, these issues are of even greater relevance to Chinese researchers today.

Fortunately, there is actually a fair amount of scholarly research on the subject, and there exist four main explanations. The first is the “international structure theory” most commonly used by IR scholars (especially the realists), and the second, more common among Western scholars, is the “weak democratic government theory. The third is the “Pan-Asianism,” which focuses on the constructivist perspective. Finally, there is the political economy explanation of expansionary policies.

At the first glance, it seems that each of these explanations has its own rationale. Of the four, the view that the navy and the military were increasingly extreme in their struggle for policy dominance is the most possible explanation. However, it seems that each of the four existing explanations can, in fact, be incorporated into a new one, namely, that Japan’s self-destructive expansionary policies prior to World War II were the material manifestation of an uncontrolled nationalism. More specifically, these four explanations answer why the Showa government was unable to control the nationalist forces in the country. On the other hand, however, the question of whether nationalism would necessarily expand without outside interference and lead to expansionist policies was left unexplained.

Because of the natural characteristics of nationalism, it seems to us that there is a natural tendency for nationalism to expand in the course of its development. The main reasons for this phenomenon are not complicated. First of all, nationalism is a group ideology, which means that nationalists have a common goal at the macro level, but the boundaries of national interest are not consistently defined by different individuals. On this basis, because of the unreliability of group rationality, nationalism as a groupthink is prone to overstretch in the course of its development. Moreover, when such currents are not rationally controlled and end up holding state policy hostage, the state tends to follow a self-destructive path of expansionism. Pre-World War II Japan is a classic case in point.

It should be noted that the positive effects of nationalism is not being denied here, but it is crucial that a country’s policymaking process should not be ultimately being a hostage to nationalist forces. The question then, is how to prevent nationalism from spiraling out of control. From an empirical point of view, there are two different directions to prevent nationalism from getting out of control at the macro level: first, to eliminate “group irrationality” in nationalism; Second, to establish a corresponding gatekeeper between nationalism and state policymaking.

The first direction is essential to improve the thinking capacity and cultural literacy of society as a whole. This is a radical way to solve the above problems, and the improvement of the education system is the most crucial part of it. However, for reasons that are easy to understand, this approach often takes too long to implement, and the process is not really controllable. As a result, this approach, while very important, is often insufficient for policymakers.

The second approach, on the other hand, is a short-term solution (relatively speaking). To use the common metaphor of treating a bodily disease, a gatekeeper-kind-of-approach is not to eradicate the disease but rather to prevent it from damaging health amid acceptance of its existence. There are two other ways to establish gatekeepers: one is to establish a mature political system that uses institutional factors to insulate people from the negative effects of nationalism. This is also the more popular approach in developed Western countries. It should be noted that this approach has proven itself to be effective, most notably in the case of the United States, which also has two populist leaders, as opposed to Brazil, where institutional constraints and the resulting establishment have been significantly more effective in containing the negative effects of nationalism on the policy.

The alternative is to rely on a small number of political authorities within society to isolate the scourge of nationalism through the elite’s prestige and quality. Again, this is also an approach that has worked before. The best example is the significant role played by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the “reform and opening-up” process.

So, which is more effective, institutions or authority? This is not a question that can be easily answered. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, and because every country and society is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

First of all, the main advantage of institutional gatekeepers is that once established, the containment is apparent and fairly solid; however, the disadvantage is that institutions may take a long time to develop and may come at a cost (e.g., the French Revolution). An authoritative gatekeeper’s advantage is its high degree of operability, while the disadvantage is the unsustainability and instability of the individual factor. On this basis, the realization of either approach needs to be linked to local realities; in other words, neither is necessarily successful. However, despite the different possibilities of approaches and paths, one issue is certain: in this day and age, uncontrolled nationalism is still a problem that threatens national interests, and this issue must be given sufficient attention and focus by policymakers.

Lastly, for contemporary China, the case of Showa Japan has another area of critical research value: how to deal with the current international order? History has shown that almost every attempt to challenge the existing international order independently has often ended in self-destruction. Successful transformations of the international structure tend to be incremental. In the case of pre-World War II Japan, the immediate effect of nationalism was to push the Japanese government to place itself on the opposite side of the prevailing international order. Today’s China has certainly not come that far. In fact, as Professor Wang Jisi says: “In those days, Japan was an ‘institution’ in the international order, while China was rejected and discriminated against by the West as an ‘other.’ Today, Japan is still ‘within the system’ of the international order, while China has risen to become the world’s second-largest economy and its military power is not what it used to be, but there is still the question of how China views the existing international order and how to deal with its relationship with the existing international order. ” In dealing with this problem, preventing the negative effects of nationalism on state policy is undoubtedly an important aspect.

*Mr. Yu(Tony) Pan serves as the associate research fellow and the research assistant of Mr. Chan Kung, Founder, Chairman, and the Chief Researcher of ANBOUND. He obtained his master’s degree at George Washington University, the Elliott School of International Affairs; and his bachelor’s degree in University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. Mr. Pan has published pieces in various platform domestically and internationally. He currently focuses on Asian Security, geopolitics in Indo-Pacific region and the U.S.-Sino Relations.

Founder of Anbound Think Tank in 1993, Chan Kung is now ANBOUND Chief Researcher. Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.

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East Asia

Who would bell the China cat?

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If the G-7 and NATO china-bashing statements are any guide, the world is in for another long interregnum of the Cold War (since demise of the Soviet Union). The G-7 leaders called upon China to “respect human rights in its Xinjiang region” and “allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy” and “refrain from any unilateral action that could destabilize the East and South China Seas”, besides maintaining “peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”.

China’s tit-for-tat response

The Chinese mission to the European Union called upon the NATO not to exaggerate the “China threat theory”

Bitter truths

Amid the pandemic, still raging, the world is weary of resuscitating Cold War era entente. Even the G-7 members, Canada and the UK appear to be lukewarm in supporting the US wish to plunge the world into another Cold War. Even the American mothers themselves are in no mood to welcome more coffins in future wars. Importance of the G-7 has been whittled down by G-20. 

Presumptions about the China’s cataclysmic rise are unfounded. Still, China is nowhere the US gross National Product. China’s military budget is still the second largest after the US. It is still less than a third of Washington’s budget to be increased by 6.8 per cent in 2021.

India’s role

India claims to be a natural ally of the G-7 in terms of democratic “values”. But the US based Freedom House has rated India “partly free because of its dismal record in persecution of minorities. Weakened by electoral setbacks in West Bengal, the Modi government has given a free hand to religious extremists. For instance, two bigots, Suraj Pal Amu and Narsinghanand Saraswati have been making blasphemous statements against Islam at press conferences and public gatherings.

India’s main problem

Modi government’s mismanagement resulted in shortage of vaccine and retroviral drugs. The healthcare system collapsed under the mounting burden of fatalities.  

Media and research institutions are skeptical of the accuracy of the death toll reported by Indian government.

The New York Times dated June 13, 2021 reported (Tracking Corona virus in India: Latest Map and case Count) “The official COVID-19 figures in India grossly under-estimate the true scale of the pandemic in the country”. The Frontline dated June 4, 2021 reported “What is clear in all these desperate attempts is the reality that the official numbers have utterly lost their credibility in the face of the biggest human disaster in independent India (V. Sridhar, India’s gigantic death toll due to COVID-19 is  thrice  the official numbers”, The frontline, June 4, 2021). It adds “More than 6.5 lakh Indians, not the 2.25 lakh reported officially are estimated to have died so far and at best a million more are expected to die by September 2021. The Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that actual Indian casualties may be 0.654 million (6.54 lakh), not the official count of 0.221 million (2.21 lakh as on May 6 when the report was released. That is a whopping three times the official numbers, an indicator of the extent of under-reporting”.

Epidemiologist Dr. Feigl-ding told India Today TV on April, 16, 2021 that “actual number of COVID-19 cases in India can be five or six times higher than the tally right now” (“Actual COVID-19 cases in India may be 5 to 10 times higher, says epidemiologist. India Today TV April 16, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India’s animosity against China is actuated by expediency. There is no chance of a full-blown war between China and India as the two countries have agreed not to use firepower in border skirmishes, if any. Modi himself told the All-party conference that not an inch of Indian territory has been ceded to China. In May this year, the Army Chief General M M. Naravane noted in an interview: “There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing.”

It is not China but the Quad that is disturbing unrest in China’s waters.

History tells the USA can sacrifice interests of its allies at the altar of self interest. India sank billions of dollars in developing the Chabahar Port. But, India had to abandon it as the US has imposed sanctions on Iran.

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Xinjiang? A Minority Haven Or Hell

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While the G7 meets under the shadow of Covid 19 and the leaders of the most prosperous nations on earth are focused on rebuilding their economies, a bloodless pogrom is being inflicted on a group of people on the other side of the world.

In this new era, killing people is wasteful and could bring the economic wrath of the rest of the world.  No, it is better to brainwash them, to re-educate them, to destroy their culture, to force them to mold themselves into the alien beings who have invaded their land in the name of progress, and who take the best new jobs that sprout with economic development.  Any protest at these injustices are treated severely.

Amnesty International has published a new 160-page report this week on Xinjiang detailing the horrors being perpetrated on Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.  Amnesty has simultaneously announced a campaign on their behalf.

Persecution, mass imprisonment in what can best be described as concentration camps, intensive interrogation and torture are actions that come under the definition of ‘crimes against humanity’.  More than 50 people who spent time in these camps contributed first-hand accounts that form the substance of the report.  It is not easy reading for these people have themselves suffered maltreatment even torture in many instances.

The UN has claimed that 1.5 million Muslims (Uighurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tajiks) are in these internment camps and China’s claims of re-education camps made to sound as benign as college campuses are patently false.

People report being interviewed in police stations and then transferred to the camps.  Their interrogation was frequently conducted on ‘tiger chairs’:   The interviewee is strapped to a metal chair with leg irons and hands cuffed in such a manner that the seating position soon becomes exceedingly painful.  Some victims were hooded; some left that way for 24 hours or more, and thus were forced to relieve themselves, even defecate, where they sat.  Beatings and sleep deprivation were also common.

Activities were closely monitored and they were mostly forbidden to speak to other internees including cell mates.  Trivial errors such as responding to guards or other officials in their native language instead of Mandarin Chinese resulted in punishment.

Amnesty’s sources reported the routine was relentless.  Wake up at 5am.  Make bed — it had to be perfect.  A flag-raising and oath-taking ceremony before breakfast at 7 am.  Then to the classroom.  Back to the canteen for lunch.  More classes after.  Then dinner.  Then more classes before bed.  At night two people had to be on duty for two hours monitoring the others leaving people exhausted.  You never see sunlight while you are there, they said.  That was because they were never taken outside as is done in most prisons.

The re-education requires them to disavow Islam, stop using their native language, give up cultural practices, and become Mandarin-speaking ‘Chinese’.

Such are the freedoms in Xi Jinping’s China.  If China’s other leaders prior to Mr. Xi effected moderate policies in concert with advisers, it is no longer the case.  Mr. Xi works with a small group of like minds.  He has also removed the two-term or eight-year limit on being president.  President for life as some leaders like to call themselves, then why not Mr. Xi.  His anti-democratic values make him eminently qualified. 

An enlightened leader might have used the colorful culture of these minorities to attract tourists and show them the diversity of China.  Not Mr. Xi, who would rather have everyone march in lockstep to a colorless utopia reminiscent of the grey clothing and closed-collar jackets of the Maoist era. 

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Looking back on India-China ties, one year past the Galwan incident

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modi xi jinping

Two nuclear-armed neighbouring countries with a billion-plus people each, geographically positioned alongside a 3,488-km undemarcated border in the high Himalayas. This is the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Differences in perception of alignment of this border for both sides have contributed to a seemingly unending dispute.

Chinese unilateral attempt to change status quo in 2020

One year back, on 15 June 2020, a clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh turned bloody, resulting in the death of 20 soldiers in the former side and four in the latter side. It was an unfortunate culmination of a stand-off going on since early May that year, triggered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops encountering Indian troops who were patrolling on their traditional limits.

It was followed by amassing of troops in large number by China on its side and some of them crossed the line over without any provocation, thereby blocking and threatening India’s routine military activities on its side of the traditionally accepted border. It was a unilateral attempt by the Chinese Communist Party-run government in Beijing to forcefully alter the status quo on the ground.

The LAC as an idea

Over the years, the LAC has witnessed one major war resulting from a Chinese surprise attack on India in 1962 and periodic skirmishes along the various friction points of the border, as seen in the years 1967, 1975, 1986-87, 2013, 2017, and the most recent 2020 Galwan Valley incident, the last being the worst in five decades. Post-Galwan, the optics appeared too high on both sides.

The LAC as an idea emerged with the annexation of Buddhist Tibet by Chinese communist forces in the early 1950s, bringing China to India’s border for the first time in history. This idea just emerged and was taking shape through the Jawaharlal Nehru-Zhou Enlai letters of correspondence that followed.

In 1962, while the world was engrossed upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chinese inflicted a huge military and psychological debacle on unprepared and outnumbered Indian soldiers in a month-long war along this border.

Even to this date, there is still no mutually agreeable cartographic depiction of the LAC. It varies on perceptions.

What could’ve led to 2020 stand-off?

One of the reasons that led to the current new low in India-China ties, other than differing perceptions, is the improvement in Indian infrastructure capabilities along the rough mountainous terrains of the Himalayan borders and its resolve to be on par with China in this front. This has been a cause of concern in Chinese strategic calculations for its Tibetan border.

The carving up of the Indian union territory of Ladakh with majority Buddhists from the erstwhile Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 has indeed added to Beijing’s concerns over the area.

For the past few years, India has been upfront in scaling up its border infrastructure throughout the vast stretch of LAC, including in eastern Ladakh, where the 2020 stand-off took place. There is a serious trust deficit between India and China today, if not an evolving security dilemma.

Post-Galwan engagement

Several rounds of talks were held at the military and the diplomatic levels after the Galwan incident, the working-level mechanisms got renewed and new action plans were being formed before the process of disengagement finally began.

The foreign ministers of both countries even met in Moscow on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet in September, which was followed by a BRICS summit where Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping came face-to-face in November, although virtually.

By February 2021, the process of disengagement of troops gained momentum on the ground around the Pangong lake area. So far, eleven rounds of talks were held at the military level on the ground at the border. But, the disengagement is yet to be fully completed in the friction points of Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains.

Diplomacy is gone with the wind

All the bilateral border agreements and protocols for confidence-building that were signed between the both countries in the years 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 were rendered futile by the Chinese PLA’s act of belligerence in Galwan.

The spirit of two informal Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summits to build trust after the 2017 Doklam standoff, one in Wuhan, China (2018) and the other in Mamallapuram, India (2019) was completely gone with the wind. This is further exacerbated by the Chinese practice of ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’, which is clearly undiplomatic in nature.

India’s diversification of fronts

Coming to the maritime domain, India has upped the ante by the joint naval exercises (Exercise Malabar 2020) with all the Quad partners in November, last year. Thereby, New Delhi has opened a new front away from the Himalayan frontiers into the broader picture of India-China strategic rivalry. Australia joined the exercise, after 13 years, with India, Japan, and the United States, a move indicative of militarisation or securitisation of the Quad partnership.

Recently, India has been consolidating its position over the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lying southeast to the mainland, and close to the strategic Strait of Malacca, through which a major proportion of China’s crude oil imports pass through before venturing out to the ports of South China Sea.

Economic ties, yearning to decouple

Last year, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar remarked that border tensions cannot continue along with co-operation with China in other areas. In this regard, the Narendra Modi government has been taking moves to counter China in the economic front by banning a large number of Chinese apps, citing security reasons, thereby costing the Chinese companies a billion-size profitable market. The Indian government has also refused to allow Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE to participate in India’s rollout of the 5G technology.

Moreover, India, Australia and Japan have collectively launched a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in 2020 aimed at diversifying supply chain risks away from one or a few countries, apparently aimed at reducing their dependence on China. In terms of trade, India is still struggling to decouple with China, a key source of relatively cheap products for Indian exporters, particularly the pandemic-related pharmaceutical and related supplies in the current times.

But, the Indian government’s recent domestic policies such as “Self-Reliant India” (Atmanirbhar Bharat) have contributed to a decline in India’s trade deficit vis-à-vis China to a five-year low in 2020, falling to around $46 billion from around $57 billion in 2019.

The broader picture

The border dispute remains at the core of a range of issues that define the overall India-China bilateral relations. Other issues include trade and economics, Beijing’s close ties with Islamabad, the succession of Dalai Lama who has taken asylum in India since 1959 and the issue of Tibetan refugees living in India, educational ties, and the strategic rivalry in India’s neighbourhood, i.e., South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, among others.

Chinese belligerence has led India to find its place easily in the evolving ‘new Cold War’

The more China turns aggressive at its border with India, the more it will bring India close to the United States and the West. Despite India’s traditional posture of indifference to allying itself exclusively with a power bloc, in the recently concluded G7 summit, India referred to the grouping of liberal democracies as a ‘natural ally’.

India has been raising the need for a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific in as many multilateral forums as possible, a concept which China considers as a containment strategy of the United States. Possibly, India might also join the G7’s newly announced infrastructure project for developing countries in an appropriate time, as it is initiated as a counterweight to China’s multi trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

There was a time in the past when the former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to lead Asia by cooperating with China. Considering today’s changed geopolitical realities and power dynamics, nowhere in anyone’s wildest dreams such an idea would work out. Prime Minister Modi’s muscular foreign policy imperatives are aligning well with the Joe Biden-led Western response to the looming common threat arising from Beijing.

Today, encountering Xi Jinping’s grand strategy of Chinese domination of the world (by abandoning its yesteryear policy of ‘peaceful rise’) is a collective endeavour of peace-loving democracies around the world, to which Asia is particularly looking forward. Most notably, it comes amid an inescapable web of global economic inter-connectedness, even among rival powers.

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