Asia: Nice, Nationalist or Both?

The odd commentary has made the case that Asia’s is seeing a new nationalist political resurgence. The most obvious examples are the government of Shinzo Abe in Japan and, in expectation, the prime ministership of Narendra Modi in India. The nationalist credentials of neither are in doubt.

After that, the evidence runs pretty dry. Xi Jinping is neither more nor less nationalist than any of his predecessors. Bo Xilai, if he had emerged as the new Chinese head, might have been different. Xi, if anything, is far less assertive in foreign policy terms than Hu Jintao was.

Indonesia’s presidential frontrunner, Joko Widodo, is cut from pretty much the same cloth as all the other main contenders for the Jakarta top post. In fact, it’s largely politics as usual in most of Southeast Asia.

More to the point, wouldn’t it be expected that many Asian countries would be nationalistic? Many, like India and Indonesia, are giving rise to new middle classes — exactly the social group that embraces, even defines, nationalism in every country. They are also knitting together multiethnic, multi-identity countries into unitary nations. Inevitably the symbols of nationalism and tools of nationalist mobilization will be used and invoked.

The only real concern is whether this nationalism will result in aggression, militarism and otherwise grow from the barrel of a gun. Or whether that is the leitmotif of Asian nationalist governments.

Not really. What is driving the rightwing turns in India and Japan is or was the failure of liberal governments to solve crucial economic issues and otherwise inspire a sense of national malaise.

This is not uncommon among emerging economies in general. All of them have many problems, political economic and social, to solve before they are home and dry. Thus Turkey’s secular Kemalist elite made a hash of the economy and opened the door for an Islamicist party to take over. The same argument may soon be made of India.

The new Asian nationalism is being driven by domestic concerns. Abe definitely is all about reviving his country, restoring the risk-taking and entrepreneurial zeal that propelled Japan in the 1960s. Modi will inherit an economy in tatters as well — and it is because it it in tatters that he is in with a chance at all.

Does this augur poorly for Asian security?

Depends. Conservative governments are often very inward-looking. Modi will be a prime minister who will focus on domestic issues and shun the international spotlight. This fits in with Hindutva’s worldview in any case. Abe is probably not unhappy with the squabbles with China. It is one of the many instruments he is using to try and stoke a fire among his people.

What makes this nationalism dangerous externally is China. Beijing’s tightly controlled nationalism is used to keep the fortunes of the ruling party intact. So it is directed outwardly when it is politically useful to do so. This seems to be increasingly more often the case. But this sort of adventurism inevitably encourages more aggressive strands in other countries experiencing the wrong end of the Chinese stick.

That is where Asian nationalism enters treacherous terrain.

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