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Special> Diaoyu Islands Dispute> Opinion
UPDATED: February 6, 2013 NO. 7 FEBRUARY 14, 2013
On the Borderline
The China-Japan dispute over the Diaoyu Islands is a global concern
By Kerry Brown

The second issue is the role of nationalism in foreign relations. These apply to all countries. In A Cultural Theory of International Relations by Richard Ned Lebow, he argues elegantly that countries throughout history have been more motivated by issues of national dignity, pride and honor than by rational calculations of self-interest. Wars and conflicts have often been waged at enormous cost throughout history not because of any logical plan about how they assist in achieving specific objectives but because of offended national sentiments or issues of pride. Disputes over borders, whether at sea or on land, strike at this sense of pride and legitimacy, and thus create strong responses.

And the third is the role of emotions generally in human behavior and action. The Japanese and Chinese public responses over the last few months to the dispute, with anger, demonstrations and proclamations online, have been strong and persistent. To outsiders, they show a highly emotional and sometimes nationalistic dimension to public opinion in both countries. As Dominique Moisi wrote in The Geopolitics of Emotion, "One cannot fully understand the world in which we live without trying to integrate and understand its emotions." The dispute between China and Japan makes no sense unless one looks at the emotional dimension to foreign policy.

Rational solution

But like it or not, we must be rational actors. And a rational actor would look at the advice given by late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s about leaving decisions that are too tough to make now for the next generation, or the one after that. By then, what is impossible today might have a solution. They would look at the suggested compromises that urge resource-exploitation agreements as at least one way of coming up with a pragmatic framework to balance everyone's interests now without having to sort out everything at once.

What the United States, the EU and pretty much everyone else in the region wouldn't want is for major economies with enormous amounts of investment and economic integration like that of Japan and China to be in conflict with each other. This is especially the case in view of the fragility of the global economy elsewhere in the world. China's stable growth is becoming one of the great engines for GDP elsewhere on the planet. If this is slowed down, then it will go from being a regional problem to a global one.

General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping has stated that China won't compromise on its core values diplomatically in a speech from Beijing in late January. Over the last few years, the Chinese Government has spoken more of its "core interests," spelling some of these out. There is wide understanding that sovereignty is of vital importance to the government, and that it sees part of its function to make China strong enough that it is listened to on these issues.

With its new government in Tokyo too, the Japanese must understand that there needs to be pragmatism and a lessening of the highly charged emotional language that has grown in the last few weeks. Getting to a framework where the hard issues aren't solved but at least are not buried and can be dealt with another day when tempers have calmed down might not be an exciting objective to aim for, but for a region that has seen too much of its share of instability and strife in the last century, this at the moment looks like the best place to be.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and executive director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney

Email us at: yanwei@bjreview.com

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