The East China Sea conflict and China’s national identity

Essay, 2016

9 Pages, Grade: 5/6


Introduction: The East China Sea

“Scholars linked to the Chinese government privately suggest that a crisis might be needed to resolve the dispute over the Senkakus” (Herman & Libby, 2016, para. 4). Arthur Herman’s quote suggests the urgency of the dispute; the level of escalation it has already reached. The islands in the East China Sea (ECS) have belonged to Japan since the 19th century, but China claims them as well since 1970 (The Economist, 2013, para. 4). In recent times, China does not only claim the territory of these islands, but it also pursues its aspirations with vigor. In 2013, the government reportedly established an Air Defense Identification Zone which includes the territory of the contested islands (The Economist, 2013, para. 1). Since April 2015, China’s air force allegedly has intruded Japan’s airspace more than 200 times (Council on Foreign Relations, 2016, para. 2).

China’s actions display power. They emphasize its willingness and ability to stand up against Japan. Furthermore, it acts in this assertive manner despite the declaration of the United States to support Japan if China forcefully changes the status quo (Bartoli & Hathaway, 2013, p. 2). The displayed force suggests that China finally ended the subordination to Japan as Samuel P. Huntington envisioned (Huntington, 1996, p. 229). However, China is still deeply divided in its understanding of its identity when it comes to foreign policy. Guo (2013, p. 284) emphasizes that while China wants to present a proud image of itself, the concept of national humiliation has been a major element of Chinese society.

The following essay will shed light onto this contradiction. The essay argues that as China displays force against Japan, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the mentality of humiliation and victimization. First, the essay gives an outline of China’s understanding of its own role in the conflict with regard to the historical perspective of the century of humiliation. By introducing the idea of victimization, the dual identity can be assessed. In the end, the problem of eroding legitimation will be discussed.

Historical perspective of the conflict

The historical perspective plays a crucial role in this conflict and in China’s understanding of itself. The reference to history is understood as a reference to the ‘century of humiliation’ which captures best the devastation and humiliation China had to bear. This time period stretches from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century (Gries, 2004, p. 47). Two major historic events shall be named to underpin the sense of humiliation China has experienced with respect to Japan.

First, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. As Japan used modern arms to defeat China on land and at sea in only a three-day period, it suggested a shift of power towards Japan (Paine, 2003, p. 4). Particularly, the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 is considered as a disgrace as it declared Korea’s independence and required China to open cities to foreign trade (Chang, 2001, p. 75). Although China had experienced western imperialism prior to that date, it was humiliating to be dominated by such a small Asian country (Chang, 2001, p. 75).


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The East China Sea conflict and China’s national identity
University of St. Gallen
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east, china, china’s
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Konrad Eilers (Author), 2016, The East China Sea conflict and China’s national identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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