China Meets Its Own Worst Enemy: Itself

Excessive nationalism threatens the country's potential.


To achieve any ambitious goal, you have to want it badly enough to work and sacrifice. But there is such a thing as trying too hard. Overzealous pursuit of your heart's desire can end up chasing it away.

The Chinese government may be learning that right now. China, a great civilization brought low by foreign powers in the 19th and 20th centuries, has long burned to acquire a global stature corresponding to its self-image.

Its transformation from an economic catastrophe to an export machine has made it a much bigger player in world affairs. But sometimes efforts to assert itself generate not respect and cooperation but fear and resistance.

The decision to establish an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea didn't have to set alarm bells clanging from Seoul to Tokyo to Washington. Other countries have their own along their coastlines, and Beijing can make a reasonable case that it's entitled to one as well.

But the Chinese didn't make the case; they just proclaimed it. The change came in such an abrupt and surprising way as to make it impossible for anyone to cheerfully accept. China failed to consult with its neighbors in advance, took in islands long under Japanese jurisdiction and established rules beyond what other countries impose.

In attempting to expand its reach, the regime got its fingers scorched. Japan not only objected vigorously but mobilized support from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes 10 of China's neighbors. South Korea carried out military exercises in the area and told its airlines to ignore the Chinese demand.

The U.S. Air Force sent a couple of B-52s rumbling through the space in an ostentatious show of disrespect. President Xi Jinping had to endure the torture of a Joe Biden lecture. Oh, and if Chinese fighters provoke actual combat with their Japanese and American counterparts, they are likely to be shot down.

How does all this make China stronger and more influential? It doesn't. It repels its neighbors and spurs them to band together. It encourages Washington to retain a big military presence in the Pacific. Those in power in Beijing ought to understand as much, because they usually try to avoid steps guaranteed to cheese people off.

Twenty years ago, as China was building up its military and asserting itself in the region, experts feared it would end up going to war with various nearby countries over territorial claims, or that it would use force to keep Taiwan in line. But neither scenario came to pass. China, unlike some countries I could mention, hasn't fought a war since 1979. Taiwan is as independent, in practice, as ever.

Meanwhile, China has worked to behave like an upstanding member of the community of nations—joining the World Trade Organization, channeling aid and investment to Africa, hosting the Olympics and joining efforts to stop North Korea from building nuclear weapons.

This was a huge shift from the militancy of Mao Zedong, who saw himself as the enemy of the West, defied global norms of conduct and occasionally cackled about winning a nuclear war.

But nationalism can warp the government's judgment, as it did this time. China's rulers might take a page from the history of another country that has often played an outsized role in its part of the world: Germany. Or, rather, two pages.

In the early 20th century, Germany aspired to play a larger role in Europe, and it feared being encircled by enemies. But its behavior, such as building a navy to compete with Britain and forging an alliance with Austria-Hungary, stimulated other nations to coalesce against it, which led to defeat in World War I. Its ambitions destroyed its own ends.

After the fall of the Third Reich, by contrast, Germany put aside narrow national interests and made a priority of respecting and accommodating its neighbors. Its once-terrifying military became a servant of the Western alliance. Through humility and restraint, Germany somehow rose to the point that it is now, in the words of a BBC commentator, "Europe's indispensable power."

The Chinese leaders are doubtless familiar with Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli's adage that it is better to be feared than loved. They shouldn't forget the more pertinent advice of an underrated international relations theorist from Nazareth. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, he said, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.