mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Nationalism on the Boil Around the South China Sea

Anti-government protests are springing up in yet another country. This time, Vietnam is the lucky winner. Yet in contrast to the situation in the Arab world, the Vietnamese government isn’t the object of the demonstrators’ ire — at least not to start.

The protestors are angry about Chinese expansion into disputed areas of the South China Sea. This caused a great deal of tension between the Chinese and Vietnamese governments earlier this month, but it appeared that the two sides temporarily papered over the issue with a short diplomatic exchange. As in China, where nationalists continued to seethe after the government had settled various disputes with Japan over fishing rights and the US over the bombing of China’s Yugoslav embassy, Vietnamese nationalists want their government to take a tougher stand.

I’ve heard from friends in China that nationalists there react with outrage to Vietnamese complaints.  Nationalism in Asia can be as fierce and uncompromising and potentially as destructive a force as it used to be in Europe.  The danger that runaway nationalism in one or more Asian countries could plunge the world into another great conflict is real.  Anti-China demonstrations in Vietnam are news; they show us the challenges that lie ahead if we are to promote peaceful development in a combustible region.

It is also worth noting that small fierce nationalities with powerful allies like to pull their allies towards confrontation with their enemies.  The Serbs calculated that killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand could set off a war between Russia and Austria and that in that war Serbia could make some gains.  The calculation was not wrong; Serbia suffered terribly during the war but emerged as the leader of the much larger Yugoslav federation.

The US and China will have to learn to prevent our feisty and pugnacious smaller allies from pulling the two of us into confrontation and crisis.  This is easier said than done.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Luke Lea

    “The danger that runaway nationalism in one or more Asian countries could plunge the world into another great conflict is real.”

    I hope we have enough sense to stay out of it. We only got involved in Europe in WW I and II because Western Civilization was at stake (and because Japan attacked us). East Asia is too big, too alien, and too far away for us to play a similar role there.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a liberal internationalist, I believe in world government, but only within the limits of the possible. There’s a chance the Eurasian landmass will be divided in two again if China starts throwing its weight around — in which case I’d prefer we draw the line where Europe begins, along the Urals, and concentrate our resources on establishing peace with the Arab world.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service