Countries everywhere see varying degrees of patriotism in their people. A sense of national pride can be a positive force, overcoming cultural and political differences within a country and unifying its people. Overly zealous nationalism, on the other hand, can evolve into protectionist, anti-globalisation ‘economic nationalism’, stressing domestic control of the economy. But in today’s interconnected global economy, no country can claim to be completely autarkic, and governments everywhere recognise the necessity of international trade for the generation of prosperity. Countries that threaten international stability are struck with economic sanctions; Iran’s defiant adherence to its nuclear programme was met with punishing sanctions that crippled the country’s economy. More recently, Putin’s aggressively nationalistic romp into Crimea has been buoyed by Europe’s reluctance to impose severer sanctions upon Russia.
In Japan, Shinzo Abe is the most nationalistic Prime Minister that the country has had for a while. His “cabinet of radical nationalists” (as described by The Economist) aside, the Prime Minister is infamous for his controversial ‘revisionist’ comments on World War Two, visits to the Yasakuni Shrine and a stated desire to see a revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution. For Abe, this resurgence in patriotism goes hand in hand with his ‘Abenomics’, aimed at rejuvenating a Japanese economy that has suffered from “Two Lost Decades” of lack of growth. After years of economic stagnation, it is only natural that the Japanese are glad to have a prime minister that seems competent enough to turn the economy around. Indeed, with Japan’s notorious deflation finally starting to look reversible, Abe seems to be on the right track. The Prime Minister is not alone in his patriotism – a perception that the economy is reviving is contributing to Japanese patriotism, and decreasing opposition to the revision of the constitution, which currently prohibits Japan from having a formal army or declaring war.
Of course, an equally (if not more) important factor behind this upsurge in Japanese nationalism is the parallel movement occurring in Japan’s western neighbour, China. China’s actions towards its neighbours have become increasingly assertive in recent years, reflecting the rise in Chinese nationalism that has accompanied the country’s formidable economic advancement. Ironically, China’s tenuous relations with neighbours have not gotten in the way of regional economic integration, such as a free trade agreement with ASEAN, of which several members are embroiled in maritime territorial disputes with China. In a region where security interests and economic opportunity are ambiguously intertwined and expected to come into conflict with one another, the question of nationalism becomes all the more complex. But it looks as though for the moment, economic interests are winning out.
The ghosts of World War Two make many of Japan’s neighbours uneasy about Japan’s renewed nationalistic fervour. At the same time, the allure of economic opportunities that a stronger Japanese economy would offer isn’t easily discounted. At the very least, a strong Japan would act to counterbalance Chinese economic dominance. Even China’s leaders are not blind to the fact that Japan, already a top trading partner, offers a bigger market on which to capitalise than any other in Asia. After all, a richer Japan will buy more Chinese goods. Across the Pacific, Washington would also welcome an economically and militarily secure Japan to reduce dependence on America as well as augment Obama’s geo-strategic ‘pivot to Asia’. With initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and an FTA with Europe in the works, Japan’s rising economic fortunes are anticipated to provide much needed support for economic recoveries not just in Asia but also around the world. Nationalistic as he is, Shinzo Abe understands the importance of putting business first. The Economist has even been optimistic enough to detect signs of a “thawing of relations in North-East Asia”, such as Abe’s quiet avoidance of the Yasakuni Shrine’s springtime rituals.
In a global economic system where countries are dependent on one another, there seems to be little room for hyper-aggressive, xenophobic nationalism. As Australians, we are blessed with having relatively few diplomatic spats or significant historical tensions against any other country (except, perhaps, a friendly rivalry with our sheep-endowed siblings across the Tasman). Tony Abbott was recently in Asia and claims that free trade agreements with China and Japan will be finalised within the year. Regardless of what transpires between the oftentimes-inharmonious neighbours of North East Asia, we should recognise our neutrality as a gift for Australia, and conduct business as usual.
Image: ‘China Japan 450x300px’ by Simeon~commonswiki, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:China_Japan_450x300px.png. Licence at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en.