September 12, 2012

Statesmen need patience to calm public jingoism as disputes flare

The uncompromising claims, official and unofficial accusations, and policy moves in the South and East China Seas in recent months are creating a trend that is not in the national interest of any of the major actors involved. There are several core lessons from the dynamic currently in play. 

Territorial and maritime sovereignty issues in the South and East China Seas have entered the domestic arena of all regional claimants.

While public discourse and government accountability are good, the unleashing of public passion severely complicates diplomacy.  

The problem is compounded when officials who face political elections or leadership changes curry favor with the most hard-line nationalist sentiments.

Caving into unbridled fervor, and even jingoism, results in a polarization of views and crowds out the search for middle ground.

Moreover, in succumbing to nationalist zeal, individual governments rapidly deplete their own finite goodwill with their neighbors.

Fortunately, upcoming or possible elections and political transitions in South Korea, Japan, China and the US should attenuate public clamor in those countries next year.

Even so, we have to recognize that public opinion in these and other regional actors will be a factor in future policy for years to come.

Like the disputes themselves, statesmen will have to manage public opinion in a manner consistent with long-term national interests rather than short-term political gains.  Admittedly, this is easier said than done.

The dramatic flurry of activity and heated rhetoric has not advanced solutions to the various disputes in the region. The increased operational tempo of maritime and air activity, both civilian and military, has not added greater clarity or certainty to any state's sovereign claims.

Establishing a military garrison in Sansha city offers China little real military advantage, just as dispatching Japanese civilians to the Diaoyu Islands offers no further assurance of sovereignty.

But both actions create tensions in the region and prompt actors to believe that they should or must seek incremental, political encroachment into disputed areas. This logic has no obvious stopping point.

If public opinion will continue to confound diplomacy and if clashing interests and current actions are inching us toward conflict, then what should be done?

Leaders have to take the long view. For now, the best that can be done is managing rather than resolving these disputes.

Statesmen should adopt the do-no-harm approach of avoiding an escalation of tensions by taking unilateral actions in areas in dispute.

They should then begin to unpack the disputes, finding areas where collaborative approaches might be agreed upon, without making definitive decisions over sovereignty. This may not be satisfying, but it is realistic.

US analyst Michael Auslin recently concluded from the ongoing disputes that bitterness is permanent. He was referring to the fact that regional actors and their publics are quick to resurrect historical disputes and use lingering resentment to press for immediate action today. Sadly, he has a good point. But change can indeed occur, just very, very slowly. Only interests are permanent. It behooves all governments in the region to recognize that others may have different interests, but that overall cooperation is more important than open conflict.

For those who wonder whether the US election will have a profound effect on the country's attitude to these issues, the answer is no. While the tactics may differ slightly, elementary interests are shared across the political aisle.

The larger question is putting China-US relations on a more positive, but still realistic, trajectory. Those relations have veered too far off course in the past couple of years, far more than is warranted by actual events. 

Whoever wins in the upcoming elections, the US has a persistent interest in the growth of China's middle class and its responsible contributions to international order. The two also need to keep tensions in the East and South China Seas from spinning out of control.

The author is senior advisor and senior director of Asia-Pacific Security Program, Center for a New American Security and former director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington.