Asia: Furies Unleashed; the China-Japan Conflict Reflects a New Wave of Nationalism-And a Scramble for Future Power

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Byline: Melinda Liu and Christian Caryl (With Jonathan Ansfield and Craig Simons in Beijing, Hideko Takayama and Kay Itoi in Tokyo, B. J. Lee in Seoul and Jonathan Adams in Taipei)

For China's top leaders, the unrest seemed like a recurring bad dream. Last Saturday 20,000 furious Chinese protesters shouting "Japanese pigs, come out!" rampaged through Shanghai, tossing stones and tomatoes at the Japanese Consulate, trashing shops and flipping over a Nissan van. Two Japanese were reported injured by an angry mob; smaller demonstrations broke out in Hangzhou and Tianjin. The previous week, thousands of unruly Chinese in Beijing had broken windows at the Japanese Embassy. Just hours afterward, China's powerful Politburo Standing Committee called an emergency damage-control meeting. President Hu Jintao warned against letting the unrest spread, to avoid giving protesters "a pretext to vent their dissatisfaction" over other issues, according to a high-level Chinese source. The mood of alarm evoked the Politburo strategy sessions back in 1989, added the source, when massive protests paralyzed Tiananmen Square for weeks. "They don't want to lose control."

The immediate cause of the protests--which seemed to receive some official encouragement--was the publication in Japan of revised junior-high-school textbooks that, the Chinese claim, whitewash Tokyo's World War II record. But the simmering Japan-China dispute is not really about the war. Japan insists that it has apologized for its wartime atrocities, and has given China some $34 billion in development aid that is war reparation in all but name--a fact seldom mentioned in the Chinese media. Rather, the two rivals are engaged in an increasingly vitriolic struggle to dominate the economic, diplomatic and military future of Asia. China, flush with pride and power after 20 years of pell-mell economic growth, is spending heavily on its military and flexing its newfound diplomatic muscle. Japan, nervous about China's rise, is shedding the pacifism that has anchored its foreign policy since the end of World War II.

Both nations are competing to secure new energy supplies--especially potentially large gas deposits in the East China Sea, which the Japanese media have dubbed "the sea of conflict." Last week Japan's Trade Ministry announced it would allow Japanese firms to start drilling for oil and gas in the area--a move that China, already engaged in exploratory activities there, called a "serious provocation." And each country seems almost eager to thwart the strategic ambitions of the other, even as bilateral trade between the two has skyrocketed. China is trying to sabotage Japan's aim to become a new permanent member of a revamped United Nations Security Council. Japan is impeding China's bid to become a member of the Inter-American Development Bank. "Psychologically and strategically, both countries are becoming locked into a nasty relationship," says Washington, D.C.-based Sinologist Minxin Pei. "When we look back, this will be seen as a turning point in Sino-Japanese relations."

The friction is emblematic of a larger phenomenon. There's been a surge in what some are calling a new nationalism throughout East Asia. It's evident in the ways that countries are now asserting their interests--and challenging those of their neighbors. South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun is appealing to nationalist sentiment to shore up his shaky political support, while in Taiwan, a new generation of politicians is encouraging a more assured sense of Taiwanese identity. Since 1992, the number of island residents identifying themselves solely as Taiwanese--as opposed to Chinese or Chinese-Taiwanese --has more than doubled, from 18 percent to 40 percent of the population. "Our world view has changed," says Chang Mau-kuei of the Taipei-based Institute of Sociology at the Academia Sinica. "Now Taiwan is at the center of it, not China."

National pride is nothing new in East Asia, of course. …