Nationalism in Northeast Asia

(30 April – 2 May, 2002)



  1. On 30 April – 2 May 2002, APCSS held the “Nationalism in Northeast Asia” conference that included participants from seven countries.  The participants were subject-matter experts representing the Japanese and Russian governments, the South Korean media, and academics from China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, and the United States specializing in disciplines including sociology, anthropology, political science, history, and security studies.  The observers included US practitioners from PACOM staff and the CIA.  


  1. Conference participants focused on defining the term “nationalism,” evaluating the way nationalism is used by states and non-state actors in Northeast Asia, exploring the security implications of nationalism for the security of Northeast Asian states and for the United States, and assessing the ramifications of nationalism for multilateral security cooperation


  1. Below is a summary and assessment of the main points of discussion.



Defining Nationalism



Is Nationalism on the Rise in Northeast Asia?


Although there were differing opinions on the prevalence of nationalism, most participants felt that there is currently no sharp increase in the dangerous or aggressive forms of nationalism in Northeast Asia. 

·        The participants were particularly sanguine about Japan: the presenters mostly agreed that while ethno-cultural nationalism (based on the belief that the Japanese race is unique, and superior) is alive and well, it is quickly losing credibility as globalization and increased immigration cut away at notion that Japanese culture is the exclusive possession of the Japanese race.  State-centered nationalism has been almost non-existent in post-War Japan, and shows no sign of revitalizing.  To the extent the there is a visible segment of lawmakers engaging in what may appear to be nationalistic behavior (visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, placing the kimigayo national anthem and hinomaru flag in official status, allowing the use of textbooks which may not adequately cover Japanese atrocities during World War II), this cannot be called nationalistic so much as it can be thought of as an attempt to “normalize” a state that has been reluctant or unable to engage in a proactive security policy abroad.  Interestingly, this premise went largely unchallenged by participants from Korea, China, Russia and Taiwan. 

·        Most participants felt that nationalism in South Korea may be increasing slightly, but that it is of a “healthy” nature. Two manifestations of nationalism are anti-Americanism and anti-Japanism.  The participants felt that anti-Americanism is “wide but not deep” since it is issue-based and can be easily mitigated.  In large part, it extends from the perception that the security partnership is asymmetrical, and that the US is conspiring to block unification of the Korean peninsula in order to justify a US forward presence. On the other hand, Anti-Japanism is “wide and deep” and a much more intractable problem.

·        North Korean nationalism is state-centered, hierarchical, regimented, and focused on juche (self reliance).  It is less anti-Japanese than South Korean nationalism because the North Korean regime eliminated “collaborators” after the colonial era.  It is anti-American mostly due to genuine fears that the US intends to invade their country, indicating that continued engagement and eventual rapprochement are the best ways for the US to mitigate North Korean nationalism. 

·        Taiwanese nationalism is weak and difficult to define. Participants agreed that Taiwanese nationalism is mostly about constructing an identity in a country that is “Chinese” but not part of the People’s Republic of China.  The key elements of Taiwanese nationalism are anti-KMT, anti-Chinese mainland residents of Taiwan, and anti-mainland China.  Taiwanese politics have “democratized” and “normalized” since the KMT era, and one element of these changes is nationalism.  Taiwanese nationalism is unlikely to become a security concern.

·        Chinese nationalism was the most disputed issue of the conference.  Some participants insisted that Chinese nationalism shows dangerous “malignant” qualities that could easily become uncontrollable.  Adherents to this school of thought believe that Chinese nationalism is essentially a mixture of state-inculcated nationalism and populist reactive nationalism, with the causal factor being China’s humiliation after years of colonization.  Some of the qualities of this  “malignant” nationalism are: national humiliation and wounded pride, hyper-sensitivity to criticism, a grandiose false sense of self, demonization of others, a preoccupation with power,  political authoritarianism, and irredentism.  On the other hand, some more optimistic scholars believe that Chinese nationalism is nothing more than normal patriotism that only becomes abnormal when provoked by highly unusual events that are perceived as threatening (ex: Belgrade embassy bombing, EP-3/F-8 collision).  Most agreed that regardless of whether Chinese nationalism as dangerous or benign, it is a symptom of profound, widespread anger and frustration within the masses in China.


Implications for Regional Security


·        As it currently stands, nationalism in Northeast Asia is unlikely to impact on multilateral security cooperation.  It may, however, increase the difficulty of bilateral security cooperation.

·        The asymmetrical nature of the security relationships between the United States and South Korea, and between the United States and Japan, is increasingly likely to fuel nationalism in South Korea and Japan.

·        Nationalism in Northeast Asia is unlikely to lead to armed conflict in the region.  The only exception to this is if Taiwanese nationalism leads to a declaration of independence.

·        Participants felt that US policymakers don’t understand that nationalism in Northeast Asian states is very localized: the histories of Northeast Asian countries which have led to present-day nationalism are very different, thus the present-day nature of each country’s nationalism is unique.  One cannot generalize about nationalism in Northeast Asia.

·        Most participants agreed that globalization will incrementally undermine Northeast Asian nationalism.