Civil Society-Driven Foreign Policy
There’s been a decent amount of noise in the Chinese press over the “thousand ships” being launched to land on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. I haven’t heard anything about them landing, so who knows about whether or not this is actually happening. The islands are fairly far away, and I don’t have much insight onto the cruising speed of your average Chinese fishing boat. It’s unclear whether anything will come out of this dustup with Japan – the long-term dynamic of a volatile anti-Japanese public barely restrained by pro-business authoritarians has to be extremely unsettling to Japanese leaders.
It also demonstrates powerfully how much higher the stakes of politics can be in authoritarian countries. The Chinese government has spent the last few years playing a very delicate dance with its extremely anti-Japanese public. I think it’s a little too pat to diagnose it as a sublimation of anger that would otherwise be directed at the CCP – the Chinese have some legitimate reasons to resent Japan, though I wouldn’t include the islands in the lineup. However, this is a sentiment that CCP leadership finds acceptable, unlike a range of other unacceptable political opinions.
Political repression encourages politics to get messier. When succession is unclear, it’s more likely to be chaotic as the losers end up in jail or dead. When people can’t vote for anti-Japanese policies, they’re more likely to express their opinions by burning down Japanese stores and factories. I also find it rather pat to suggest that citizens will boot out the Communists if economic growth slows down, but it seems likely that politics will look more and more like it has in the past week. If there is an economic crash, the prestige and leadership of the CCP will weaken, and the CCP will find it less and less worthwhile to spend political capital on restraining virulent nationalism as opposed to more dire threats to its authority.
Finally, however, the chances for war are miniscule. I think that if backed into a corner, Japan would be much more likely to hand over the islands than go to war for them, simply because they’re not worth the unimaginable costs of a war to either Japan or the United States. The only (small but real) danger would be a fat-finger miscalculation, which is what truly concerns me over the alleged flotilla en route to the islands. Hopefully the Japanese MSDF will exercise appropriate caution with these fishermen – lest we be reminded civil society intruding into state affairs is a mixed blessing at best.*
*More on this later – the interaction between digital warforce forces and their netizen allies introduces a very strange wrinkle into “cyberwarfare” that the nuclear strategists never had to think about.