Written by Brian J. McVeigh.

International relations can be understood by examining detailed specifics (individual leaders, national policies articulated in position papers and laws, etc.). Or they can be appreciated by investigating matters less changeable, such as geopolitical constraints and “deep ideologies”—abiding assumptions that shape the relations between the governed and those who govern, the types of rights and privileges afforded citizens, and justifications for how property is exchanged and distributed. Of course, we cannot completely dismiss the role of “earth-shaking” individuals (e.g., Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung) and particular historical incidents. But ideologies can shatter societies through revolution or build national states by crystalizing patterned and organized arrays of powerful aspirations into political economic institutions that acquire enduring power. Rather than relying on specifics or current events, I use the lens of deep ideology to gain perspective on how Chinese and Japanese nationalism interrelate.

The Weight of History and Deep Ideologies

East Asia, like most parts of the world, has inherited Liberalist ideologies rooted in the rise of emancipatory ideas (constitutionalism, limited government, rational legal system, industrialized production of wealth guided by techno-science, the emergence of a rights-demanding middle class in pursuit of economic mobility). Liberalist ideologies come in three varieties: (1) Liberty, which views the self-owned, autonomous individual as the basic unit of society who should be free from social constraints. Liberty may be political (rights, self-determination, democracy) or economic (freely exchanging private property, i.e., “fair play”); (2) Liberality, which is concerned with freedoms from want, deprivation, and illness, and sees the state as guaranteeing “fair share.” In its mild form, it is associated with social democracy, while its more radical manifestation is socialism; (3) Liberation, which sees collectivities (“the People” or “nation”) as the basic social unit; its overriding aim is to redeem a sacred collectivity violated by foreigners.

To understand the interplay of Chinese and Japanese nationalisms, we must begin with the Pacific War. For Euro‒Americans, as traumatic as it was, this conflagration is something in the distant past. In contrast, when considering the nationalisms of Asia’s two major powers, we must start with how unresolved issues of the pre-1945 period still play a salient role in national consciousness and the policies of China and Japan (e.g. the textbook issue, “comfort women,” official visits to Yasukuni Shrine). For the Chinese, the defeat of Japan was an expression of Liberation. China’s leaders cynically remind their Japanese counterparts of Japan’s wartime atrocities in order to win concessions during negotiations. Meanwhile anti-Japanese sentiments occasionally erupt in China.

In addition to the unsettled questions from the Pacific War, the ghosts of history and ideology are salient in another way: Crucial debates shaped by the Cold War about the import of personal freedoms (Liberty), how much wealth should be redistributed (Liberality), and the need for collectivist autonomy (Liberation) are far from over. While some believe that the Cold War ended around 1990, major ideological fault lines still split the Korean peninsula and China from Taiwan.

China’s Balancing Act of Liberty and Liberality

Since the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China a pattern of alternating cycles—of tightening political economic control followed by a loosening of the rules, which in turn would be followed by a return to more controls, often in the form of “mass mobilization campaigns”—have characterized the Chinese polity. Guiding these cycles has been the Party, which views its mission as freeing workers from want and exploitation (economic Liberation), offering economic security (Liberality), and fending off foreign imperialists (political Liberation). But since the late 1970s authorities concluded that Liberality (the collectivization of property) had gone too far. Post-Mao reforms introduced economic Liberty that triggered massive productivity and the creation of personal wealth lifting millions out of poverty. Many wonder to what degree China’s growing power, unleashed by economic Liberty, will be converted to military might with a global reach.

Japan’s Postwar Renovation

In Japan’s case, 1945 marked a rupture that disabused its elites of any dreams of militarily dominating Asia. Japan’s overriding post-imperial goal is to protect its system of economic Liberty. But this objective dovetails with Liberation impulses motivated by a concern with economic threats from abroad that can be traced back to the Meiji period. This ideological continuity is evident in Japan’s “capitalist developmental state” and its robust tradition of private property. More concretely, Japan’s Liberation is motivated by renovationist nationalism: (1) a keen sensitivity to the intensity of speed from sociopolitical changes associated with modernity; (2) a great concern with cultural “authenticity” (being “Japanese”; whatever that may mean); and (3) a concentrated attention focused on emulating powerful national states in order to increase prestige and power, i.e., “catching up with the West” (despite the fact that Japan has).

Nationalist Pride and Independence

The question is whether China’s version of renovationist nationalism, one powered by the economic Liberty of millions of ambitious individuals and a new found pride in its cultural past (which were anathema during the Maoist period), will conflict with Japan’s. We should never underestimate the power of wounded historical pride and nationalist self-dignity in shaping foreign policy (e.g., China’s “hundred years of humiliation” and Japan’s fear of “falling behind”). Whether real or perceived, slights and insecurities at the national level cannot be discounted, since they can drive collectivistic attempts to maintain sovereignty—i.e., Liberation—that might mutate into open conflict.

Of course, we should shy away from making predictions while keeping in mind that anything is possible (witness the current Middle East). Besides ideas, geography is also a destabilizing variable in Sino-Japanese relations. The 65-year old Korean War (from 1950) is merely the most recent conflict on a geostrategic flashpoint of a peninsula that has seen the Sino‒Japanese (1895‒1894) and Russo‒Japanese Wars (1904‒1905). North Korea, the wild card, sits at a bloody crossroads whose unpredictable behavior could draw in a number of major powers.

In any case it is how the various ideologies of China and Japan interact that will determine their future, and while it is easy to see Liberation as the penultimate expression of nationalism, in fact both Liberty and Liberality configure nationalism. Will China, through economic Liberty and private-property accumulation, be able to cultivate a middle class (like Japan), lessening the chance of a dangerous extremism that might destabilize the international order? Will Sino‒Japanese trade dampen volatile Liberation sentiments caused by territorial disputes? To this observer one thing seems clear. Northeast Asian leaders implement economic policies of Liberty (the method) in order to ensure political Liberation (the goal, i.e., maintaining national independence). In other words, the market is regarded as a wealth-generating device that ensures national survival; individual enrichment is of secondary concern.

Brian J. McVeigh, PhD, is the author of Japanese Nationalisms: Managing and Mystifying Identity. Image credit: CC by Wolfgang Staudt/Flickr.