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Tuesday, March 27, 2001

States, nations and identities

Staff writer
ASIAN NATIONALISM, edited by Michael Leifer. Routledge, 2000, pp. 196, 17.99 British pounds (paper).

In many ways, an understanding of nationalism is essential to understanding contemporary Asia. For many Asian nations, the colonial experience is only a generation away. They are still wrestling with the effects of imperialism and trying to master the political orders they inherited -- many of them wholly artificial.

For countries like Japan and China, the problem is not so much the creation of a coherent political community, but reconciling history with modernity. For some Asian nations, those tensions go to the heart of national identity.

"Asian Nationalism" is a primer on the topic. The theoretical discussions will leave nonacademic readers struggling to stay awake. Fortunately, those sections are mercifully brief. Unless you're studying for an exam, you can skip them with a reasonably clear conscience.

The real value is in the case studies: China, Taiwan, Japan, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Indonesia. The authors are all noted specialists affiliated with the London School of Economics, and they do an impressive job in the pages they have. (Although Ian Nish's seven and a half pages on Japan seem to just scratch the surface of the subject.)

While there are interesting theoretical questions such as, for example, the overlap of the nation and the state, and the applicability of what is, after all, a Western conception of politics, when stripped of the jargon, the issue is quite simple: How do governments create loyalty among their citizens? Michael Yahuda, a scholar of China, is explicit. "Chinese leaders have provided successive political doctrines around which was hoped that the people could coalesce with a coherent view of their national identity at home and of their rightful place in the wider world: None has endured and all have been found wanting."

The problem for China is especially acute. It is a sprawling state with a huge and diverse population. Chinese leaders are concerned that their country could share the fate of the Soviet Union. Fortunately for them, China is over 90 percent Han Chinese. Four thousand years of history also provides a rallying point for national identity. Unfortunately, history also serves as a reminder of the very real possibility of a breakup. Those memories drive policy toward Taiwan, Tibet and the western provinces. Disintegration remains a very real possibility.

Despite its brevity, Nish's analysis of Japan is right on the mark. He concludes that "the Japanese themselves are polarized in their attitudes to nationalism . . . Rightwing Japanese . . . are a small minority. In general, Japanese nationalism is not fundamentally different from that of other countries and is not unhealthy. On balance, it is more restrained than that of some of its neighbors."

That could change. Nish rightly notes the attitudes of Japanese youth are hard to predict. They have no memories of war and have grown up with relative affluence. However, they're also more internationalist than their parents and should therefore be less introverted and nationalistic.

Nationalism may be important to Asian politics, but we should be careful about giving it too much explanatory power. In his chapter on Indonesia, editor Michael Leifer notes that the country's expansionist foreign-policy did not depend on nationalism. The annexation of East Timor in 1975 "should be understood, without any implied justification, in terms of the strategic imperative determined by an archipelagic perspective." In other words, pure national security considerations were key, not the desire to create an Indonesian polity.

Ultimately, we're left with questions that are pretty universal. What is the significance of national self-determination? How important is ethnic homogeneity in forging national identity? Who gets to determine what the state is and what its values are?

For Asians, the fight against imperialism was critical in creating a unified consciousness or identity. But when the colonial powers withdrew, they did not leave a blank slate. The first generation of local leaders moved into the vacuum. That has been proven to be a mixed legacy.

Independence movements have surfaced within the new states themselves. National leaders often abandoned the rhetoric of self-determination and adopted their predecessors' tactics: Heavy-handed displays of force are not uncommon. One cause of the problem is the artificial boundaries that the colonial powers left. Nonetheless, Asians must still deal with the consequences, as governments in Indonesia, the Philippines and India have discovered.

Another important issue is Islam. It is a powerful force throughout the region. Yet, it has little regard for the ethnic, racial and territorial differences that been vital elements of Asian national identity thus far. Muslims throughout the world are trying to balance the demands of their religion with those of 21st-century society. There are few comfortable fits.

The contributors conclude that "Asian nationalism seems to be more similar than dissimilar to those in other parts of a world." Given recent experience in Africa and the Balkans, I am not sure that is reassuring.

Brad Glosserman can be contacted at brad@japantimes.co.jp.

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