China's Rally 'Round the Flag Effect

China announced recently that a set of islands known as the Diaoyu (in Chinese) or the Senkaku (in Japanese) lie within its air defense borders. The move by China has largely been viewed as a test of U.S. and Japanese dominance in the region. It's also a sign that China is ready and willing to flex its military muscle.

The U.S., Japan, and South Korea have largely ignored China's threats to take action against unidentified aircrafts, causing an international relations standoff that could shake up the regional power dynamic in East Asia. But, so far, all it has seemed to do is embarrass China and anger the international community.

Why did China do it? What do they hope to gain from such an international relations nightmare?

Perhaps unexpectedly, the move likely has more to do with domestic issues than international relations. It's called the rally 'round the flag effect. Countries blow smoke internationally in order to stir up nationalist (extreme patriotism) sentiments or reposition anger away from the government and towards a foreign adversary. The U.S. is rife with examples. From the Iran hostage crisis to Operation Desert Storm, presidents in particular see a huge increase in support when there's a foreign enemy to attack.

Frequently, countries craft these narratives and in order to find enemies from without to hide problems within. Countries use the media to reposition the political narrative towards an external enemy, like Snowball -- the demonized, long-ago-exiled pig in Orwell's Animal Farm, on whom all the farm's problems were blamed.

Which brings us back to China. It could be any number of domestic ails that pushed China to manufacture an international power struggle: the embarrassing saga of Bo Xilai, the record pollution levels, the persistent allegations of government extravagance, or GDP growth that (while the envy of the West) is seen as disappointing. It's likely that whatever the problem(s) that Xi Jinping and the Communist Party see as threatening to their power influenced the government's decision to stoke the embers of the long-disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku island battle.

The situation in China is following a common trajectory. First, a country announces a plan or criticizes another country. Then, other countries engage in various methods of support, condemnation, or endorsement--with intense and inflammatory rhetoric. Third, diplomats are unleashed to placate the aggressor, everyone calms down, and fourth, each country involved seeks to save face and spin the story.

This most recent move to drum up nationalist support is potentially threatening to international stability. At worst, China's newly decreed military imposition could start a war; at best, it will lead to a diplomatic headache for all involved.

Still, there are benefits to manufacturing the rally 'round the flag effect. It's become the norm in international politics today. From a utilitarian perspective, better a war of words and military maneuvers than a real war. In most instances, after a period of heightened rhetoric, countries relax and come to a place of negotiation.

Some iteration of this manufactured international 'crisis' or another seems to happen nearly monthly. The problem is that countries are rarely, if ever, punished for their actions. China, for instance, may be asked to loosen its hold over its new air defense zone, but is unlikely to be worse off than before it manufactured the crisis with Japan. Thus, there is incentive to engage in this type of international maneuvering.

Regardless of whether the rally 'round the flag effect is a healthy way for countries to air their grievances or a dangerous game that could easily devolve into war, these manufactured crises are here to stay.

And this directs crucial attention away from domestic issues and towards a black-and-white narrative that pits 'us' against 'them.' It's little more than a distraction from what's really important. In this case, amidst poverty, pollution, and profiteering, a few unpopulated islands in the East China Sea should be all but irrelevant -- both for China and for the rest of the world. We have more pressing and more important problems to face that will help people instead of separate people.