Party leaders have regaled the populace with how they will use seagoing forces to right historical wrongs and win the nation nautical renown. They must now follow through.
It was foolish to tie China’s national dignity and sovereignty to patently absurd claims to islands and seas. But party leaders did so. And they did so repeatedly, publicly, and in the most unyielding terms imaginable. By their words they stoked nationalist sentiment while making themselves accountable to it. They set in motion a toxic cycle of rising popular expectations.
Breaking that cycle could verge on impossible. If Beijing relented from its maritime claims now, ordinary Chinese would—rightly—judge the leadership by the standard it set. Party leaders would stand condemned as weaklings who surrendered sacred territory, failed to avenge China’s century of humiliation despite China’s rise to great power, and let jurists and lesser neighbors backed by a certain superpower flout big, bad China’s will.
No leader relishes being seen as a weakling. It’s positively dangerous in China.
Small men can start big wars.
I’m currently reading Geoffrey Wawro’s A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire. It’s a great read on the Habsburgs’ political and military problems dating back to 1866, which I haven’t seen in such detail in any other WWI history. But it also reveals just how small some of the men were making Austria-Hungary’s and Germany’s biggest decisions.