The island dispute in the East China Sea is not only about oil, natural gas and fishing rights but also about feelings. Nationalist sentiments play a huge role in the escalating conflict.
Significant oil and natural gas deposits around a chain of islands in the East China Sea have been known to exist since 1969. But the conflict between the two countries claiming ownership to the islands, Japan and China, the world's second and third largest economies respectively, is not only about these rich mineral resources; deep-seated nationalist feelings are also at stake.
The high-stakes territorial dispute over the islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, has been escalating for well over a year.
Anti-Japanese sentiment is deeply rooted in Chinese history explains Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt from International Crisis Group. "For decades, the government has promoted so-called 'patriotic education,'" she told DW. "The media continuously portray the brutal occupation of China by the Japanese and China's 'heroic triumphs' under the Communist Party leadership."
The five disputed uninhabited islands and three reefs in the archipelago touch on the founding myth of Communist China. After a century of humiliation by foreign powers, the Communist Party won national sovereignty. And today only the party can guarantee the territorial integrity of the country.
Since the Communist Party has deteriorated ideologically, preserving sovereignty and territorial integrity to legitimize the dictatorship is playing an even greater role. When the new general secretary of the Communist Party and president of China, Xi Jinping, speaks of the "Chinese dream" and "restoring national strength," he is referring precisely to the victim mentality that the nation has nurtured for decades.
Gunter Schubert, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Tübingen, sees a political maneuver in the way Beijing is handling the island dispute. "In foreign policy, you always speak in clear language to be able to compensate for uncertainties in the domestic arena with so-called 'successes' in foreign policy," he explains.
The problem, however, is that Beijing is the prisoner of its own rhetoric. And this problem is growing as the influence of China's leaders over the masses diminishes. The main reason for this is – despite censorship – the Internet, especially the widespread use of short messaging services similar to Twitter.
Loss of past strength
Kleine-Ahlbrandt believes the Chinese government now needs to satisfy its citizens, who have become increasingly vocal and critical. "Chinese Internet users are following Chinese navel ships per satellite," she said. "They're criticizing the government and saying 'you haven't even made it to the islands.'" The new media, she added, have transformed nationalism into a political force so powerful that it is now threatening the legitimacy of the government.
Japan's New Komeito party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese nationalism is fed by a sense of past weakness and humiliation. Japanese nationalism, by comparison, is nourished by a sense of loss of past strength.
"This is compensation rhetoric against a backdrop of a loss of influence in the region," Sebastian Conrad, a history professor at the Freie University in Berlin, told DW, in reference to the growing nationalism in the Japanese parliament and government.
This thesis fits the economic development of nationalist movements in Japan today, which up to the 1990s hardly played a role. The country was in a relatively good position then. China was not the dominant power in East Asia. Japan even looked critically at the crimes it committed during the war and as the occupier. It even made gestures of apology to its neighbors. But when the Japanese economy began to weaken and China's influence grew, nationalistic sentiments grew stronger.
Although Conrad believes these voices are a minority in the island dispute, they're nevertheless driving the discussion.