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Nationalism and power politics in Japan's relations with China: a neoclassical realist interpretation

By Yew Meng Lai


This dissertation explores the role of nationalism in shaping Japan’s relations with China. Although not discounting the significance of external-structural constraints, it aims to explicate “nationalism” as a domestic (power and ideational) variable, and its interactions with other determinants in re-defining Japanese external policy-orientation that affected the bilateral relationship, during the Koizumi administration (2001-2006). Interpreting from a neoclassical realist (NCR) perspective, it offers a theoretically informed examination about why, how, when, and the extent to which nationalism matters in Japan’s China policy. This is done by operationalising, and systematically assessing nationalism’s salience vis-à-vis other external-domestic dynamics (i.e. alliance commitment/resolve, economic interdependence, domestic political process/actors) that simultaneously affect Japanese state-elites’ policy decision-making. It also establishes whether these factors serve to exacerbate, or mitigate domestic nationalist impulses, and their corresponding impact on Japan’s China policy-options. Two nationalist-flavoured bilateral disputes – Yasukuni Shrine and East China Sea – are utilised as case-studies.\ud \ud This thesis argues that nationalism matters, albeit to a qualified extent. Taking a realistoriented, “middle-ground” position, it hypothesises that nationalism’s salience is dependent on state-elites’ perception/calculation of the conditions related to its interactions with the other aforementioned variables that concurrently influence foreign policy-making, during a given time period. It finds nationalism especially prevalent under perceptively sanguine external conditions, where an advantageous relative power position vis-à-vis China, fostered, in particular, by favourable US-Japan alliance resolve, tends to encourage assertive-nationalistic foreign policy-options, and vice-versa. Given the findings, it concludes that nationalism is an important, but not necessarily the primary driver of Japan’s China policy.\ud \ud Overall, this thesis makes a sustained theoretical contribution to our understanding of the international relations of Japan, and the utility of IR realism. Specifically, the hospitability of NCR to domestic-ideational theorising, can bridge mainstream IR and domestic/Areastudies approaches to advance a more holistic, albeit realist-oriented appreciation of nationalism in Japan’s relations with China

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