Hairless Apes Fighting Over Coconuts: the Islands Dispute Heats Up

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I’ve been avoiding a substantive post on either the South China Sea dispute or the slap fight between China and Japan. Not really my area of expertise, and I’m not up on either the history or the relevant law. So I’ll stay away from those details.

On the other hand, there is the nationalism aspect to all this, which has culminated in the numerous protests all over the country against Japanese diplomatic missions and, to a lesser extent, commercial establishments. This has been going on for a few days now, but today we may have reached peak activity.

Keep in mind that all this stems from a disagreement over a bunch of wet rocks in the ocean to which we can’t even refer by a single name at risk of offending someone. If you’re new to this topic, let that sink in. We’re already at the point where diplomatic relations between China and Japan have been seriously affected, businesses have been hurt, some people have been physically assaulted, and even the stock market has taken a hit. All because of some “islands” that probably won’t even be around much longer if climate change continues apace, ironically because of a lack of international consensus on solutions.

Doesn’t say a lot for us hairless apes, does it? As the British poet Ray Davies wrote:

In man’s evolution he has created the city and
The motor traffic rumble, but give me half a chance
And I’d be taking off my clothes and living in the jungle.

Indeed. What is nationalism, after all, but tribalism writ large? We human beings, despite leaving the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and congregating into political entities with millions of others, have found it quite difficult to shed our old monkey ways.

Granted, I’m no fan of nationalism. I find it inexplicable that anyone would express “love” for a nation just because they were born/grew up/lived there. A simple twist of fate, certainly no reason to develop such a deep-seated emotional attachment. An intellectual preference for a certain form of government or legal system, maybe. An enjoyment of a specific climate, geography, language or cuisine, perhaps. But a “love” for a nation state? I don’t get it, but that’s what tribalism is all about I suppose. It doesn’t have to make sense.

We should probably separate nationalism from patriotism, though. I think history has shown that the former has been a whole lot of trouble. Ask Europe how the whole nation-state experiment is working out for it.

Patriotism is slightly different, though. Actions stemming from patriotic sentiment may be good or bad. Soldiers defend their countries because of patriotism. Individuals devote their lives to public service to better the lives of their fellow citizens. Even some of those Olympic athletes we all enjoyed watching last month in London were motivated by patriotism.

All well and good. At the same time, though, patriotism has given us things like war crimes, censorship and the utter stupidity of Freedom Fries. And now, because of a dispute over the ownership of these rocks, some folks are expressing their patriotism by burning Toyota automobiles. That’s just swell.

I do sympathize with the tribal instincts of individuals, which after all are hard-wired. Only a few generations ago, we were swinging from the trees in our little monkey social groups, and we have a long way to go before we can eradicate, through education, the anthropological baggage of tribalism and racism.

But when it comes to the decisions of groups, that’s another thing entirely. People have irrational thoughts and, on occasion, do stupid things. Nations, corporations and other artificial entities should be held to a higher standard. You’d think that with the collective wisdom of hundreds of millions of individuals, nation states would avoid things like unjustified wars, genocide, or fighting over small stones in large bodies of water.

But alas, nations often cater to the lowest common denominator, often deliberately angering their rivals to score cheap political points at home. Why did Japan purchase some of these islands last week? Why did China establish an administrative office on a different set of islands (another dispute), deliberately signalling its incorporation of that territory? Hell, for that matter, why are Obama and Romney stuck in a China bashing contest? Monkey see, monkey do, particularly when all the other monkeys are susceptible to populist stump speeches.

There are plenty of folks out there who derive pleasure from seeing their “team” win. Works the same way with sports and international relations. And even if you wouldn’t normally consider yourself an ardent nationalist, that’s where peer pressure comes in.

The last piece of the puzzle is naked opportunism. When governments appeal to patriotic sentiment, or when politicians publicly profess their love of the nation, there’s usually a reason for it, an ulterior motive. Otherwise, why for example would China and Japan waste so much time, energy and resources on some rocks and fish?

Writing in The Diplomat about the motivation behind all this, Trefor Moss observes:

These self-inflicted mind games can be explained in part by the manipulation of nationalism both by governments and the media.

What their particular goals are is up for interpretation, but all you have to do is go out on the street here in Beijing and watch hundreds of folks shuffle along outside the Japanese Embassy to know that the mind games are working.

And what are we to do with the actions of entities like Baidu, China’s number one search engine? For whatever reason, Baidu, despite having operations in Japan, thought it was in their best interest to plant its flag firmly in the nationalist camp today. As was reported on the Shanghaiist blog:

Absolutely a political message seen now on the homepage of local search giant, Baidu.com — an animated image of the Chinese flag standing on the disputed islands known as Diaoyu to China and Senkaku to Japan. The same picture was not observed on the homepage of Baidu’s Japanese language service, Baidu.jp (well, duh) which the company formally launched in 2008. In addition, they’ve also set up a “Protect the Diaoyu Islands” mini-site, where more than 1.2 million people are said to have stuck their own virtual flag on the islands. Yup, whatever ambitions the company may have had to conquer the Japanese market, they just blew them to smithereens over the East China Sea.

Far be it from me to criticize a business decision, but I’m not sure how this is going to help Baidu break free from the image of it as a limited, China-only company. When push comes to shove, you gotta stick with your troop. By the way, “troop” is the formal term for a group of monkeys.

So where do I come down on this dispute? Which troop deserves to keep all those juicy coconuts? I guess at the end of the day, my opinion keeps shuttling between “wearily amused” and “annoyed” that this is even happening. The unfortunate part of all this, however, is that no matter which dominant male monkey ends up on top of the palm tree flinging his feces triumphantly, the rest of us down on the ground have to deal with the fallout.

After the past few days of these uncomfortable displays of knee-jerk nationalism, perhaps Tokyo and Beijing will realize that this dispute needs to end.

3 responses on “Hairless Apes Fighting Over Coconuts: the Islands Dispute Heats Up

  1. jinxin

    Didn’t the same thing happen a couple years ago? those rocks always come in handy when the economy is going down and government need to divert their citizens attention to somewhere else. just afraid of folks getting angry about internal problems. fishing rights and oil might be a reason too to fight for those rocks and we should’t forget that the ownership of some rocks in the oceans expands the national boarders.
    I really hope it will be over before my trip to Beijing in mid October…

  2. zepplin

    Tribalism is a form of loyalty, one of the basic ethical values.

    Why would someone express “love” for a nation just because they were born/grew up/lived there?
    Why would someone express “love” for their family just because they were born/grew up/lived there?

    It is only inexplicable in that it is intrinsic.

    And as a basic value, it inevitably will clash with other ethical values such as tolerance, peace, truth, or whatnot.

    To say that that loyalty is ape-like and should not be given weight in our ethics may be arguable, but is certainly non-mainstream. After all, there is no friendship without loyalty; there is no community without loyalty.

    Perhaps it is only the form of loyalty that you have issue with. Maybe personal loyalty, or loyalty to the human race (against aliens?) is acceptable, but loyalty to a more abstract concept of nation seem silly to you. If so, then you must admit that this is a decidedly human trait, as apes would emphasis personal or familial loyalty much more than any abstract concept of tribe.

    Or maybe it is the degree of loyalty that troubles you. Maybe a white lie to cover your friend or fast tracking a cousin’s resume is an acceptable degree of loyalty but flipping over cars is not. If this is the case, then you must realize that it is just a matter of degree, and there is nothing inherently “senseless” about tribalism.