Nationalism is on the march in Asia; great competition for power is likely

Narendra Modi’s ascension to India’s apex political office on May 26 has completed a triad of nationalist leaderships in the most powerful Asian nations. At last, all three major powers in Asia – China, India and Japan – are now led by combative nationalist leaders. “The multilateralist assumptions of the postwar order;” says Philip Stephens of the Financial Times, “are giving way to a return to great power competition.”

As the head of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), “Mr. Modi’s ambitions,” writes Stephens, “reach beyond the domestic: India should be China’s match on the global stage. Modi’s Hindu nationalism fits the temper of the region. China’s President Xi Jinping wants to restore the Middle Kingdom to past pre-eminence. In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is driven by a resolve to rebuild Japan’s capacity to stand up to Beijing.”

The return of Asia’s nationalist power game starts with a new India-Japan alliance. After decades of mutual neglect, New Delhi and Tokyo are now set to build a strong alliance to counter a rising China’s assertiveness.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is very enthusiastic about a strong India-Japan alliance. In Abe’s words, “India from the west, Japan from the east, the confluence of the two deep-rooted democracies is one important part of the international common goods for the 21st century. A strong India is in the best interest of Japan, and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.”

The Modi-led nationalist BJP echoes Mr. Abe’s enthusiasm and views Indo-Japanese relations as a “natural and indispensable alliance” and the “India-Japan partnership has never been more important to our two countries than it is today.”

The Tokyo-New Delhi alliance “is a grand strategic bargain,” according to Stephens, “Japan has the technology and investment to speed India’s economic development. Delhi would be a powerful ally in containing China. Each has territorial quarrels with Beijing – Japan in the East China Sea and India on its northern border. Both worry about Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean.”

Another flashpoint of nationalist conflict arises from the ever-increasing hatred and hostility between China and Japan. The Beijing-Tokyo relations could hardly go worse: never-ending territorial disputes, intense arms race, dangerous military maneuvers and assertive nationalist policies are pushing the Sino-Japanese relations completely out of control.

As Chinese fighter jets came as close as 30 meters to Japanese surveillance planes near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands on May 24, there are now real fears among Japan-China watchers that any further miscalculation or accident may instigate a head-on military clash between the two East Asian giants.

“Tensions have risen to dangerous levels between Japan and China,” Sheila Smith of Council on Foreign Relations warns, “given current circumstances in the East China Sea, three contingencies are conceivable: first, an accidental or unintended incident in and around the disputed islands could trigger a military escalation of the crisis; second, either country could make a serious political miscalculation in an effort to demonstrate sovereign control; and third, either country could attempt to forcibly control the islands.”

“This turning kaleidoscope of rivalries and realignments,” added Stephens, “is further complicated by a swirl of collisions involving smaller players. China is in angry dispute with Vietnam and the Philippines over competing claims in the South China Sea.”

In May, a state-owned Chinese oil rig was deployed to waters close to the Paracel Islands and Beijing sent more than 80 ships, including military vessels and aircrafts to support it. Vietnam reacted by dispatching some 29 ships to disrupt Chinese rig’s placement, resulted in several serious collisions between Chinese and Vietnamese ships and six Vietnamese crew members were injured in the confrontation.

Hanoi then approved anti-China protests, a decision that led to the start of violent demonstrations nationwide. The protesters attacked Chinese factories and businesses in Vietnam. The rioters set at least 15 factories on fire and more than 20 people were killed in the May violence.

“Both China and Vietnam have misread the situation,” writes Deutsche Welle’s Rodion Ebbighausen, “while Beijing wasn’t counting on such strong Vietnamese resistance, Hanoi didn’t expect the protests to become so violent. In order for governments to regain their capacity to act freely, they break free of the vicious circle of nationalism.”

Many Asian leaders are now riding the tiger of nationalism, and unless they soon realize how dangerous nationalism is to peace in the region and stability at home, they may be too late to get off.

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.