Chinese Nationalism or the Chinese Communist Party: Who is Really Guiding China's Foreign Policy?
China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that leads it has historically limited itself in regards to projecting power and inserting itself into international disputes and affairs. With the exception of its involvement in the Korean War, most conflicts that China has involved itself with were over border disputes.1 This relative lack of assertiveness is by no means an accident, and in fact is a deliberate strategy that harks back to the early days of Deng Xiaoping and the reform and opening up policies. China's “peaceful rise” as its leaders like to put it has placed a heavy emphasis on economic development and modernization with the goal of eventually achieving a “moderately prosperous society.” The export based, FDI fueled economy has been the backbone of this drive since the early 1990s, but it also has placed China in a position where they have been reliant on foreign capital and technology to achieve this growth. The famous guiding words of Deng for China to “stay out of the limelight”2 have been remarkably adhered to in the context of international relations, especially when held up against other major global powers and their activities.
Yet this guiding principle of non-involvement has arguably shifted over the past several years into a mentality of increased willingness to confront and engage not only the West, but also its neighbors on a number of matters related to both political and economic interests. What has prompted this shift in foreign policy? For a nation that has prided itself on adhering to the premise of a peaceful rise, recent events such as the Diaoyu Island dispute, land grabbing and island building in the South China Sea, the meetings between Xi Jinping and Taiwan's previous President Ma Ying-jeou, have clearly worried and concerned many countries over China's actual intentions.
China is becoming increasingly unwilling to constrain the expression of popular nationalism and more willing to follow its call to confront Western powers. This is due to the necessity of being increasingly responsive to public opinion as the average Chinese person now has access to more avenues of expression, regardless of censorship.
There is an argument by Suisheng Zhao that says the CCP is becoming increasingly unwilling to constrain the expression of popular nationalism, and more willing to follow its call to confront Western powers and its neighbors. This is due to the necessity of being increasingly responsive to public opinion as the average Chinese person now has access to more avenues of expression, regardless of censorship.
Furthermore, although the CCP enjoys a level of wealth and military power unequaled at any point in its own history, it now is expected to be able to utilize them if necessary, adding pressure on the regime. Additionally, given the growing domestic awareness and criticisms of the social, economic and political tensions, playing to the nationalist sentiment helps divert attention away from these other areas of concern.3 Clearly there many ways to interpret Chinese nationalism and its impact on China's foreign policy. However, for the sake of this paper, I explore the idea that Chinese nationalism does in fact influence the CCP from a ground-up approach, rather than the more common view that the CCP excercises top-down control over the masses.4 I do this by first summarizing and then expanding on the claims raised in an essay that attempts to link the Diaoyu Island protests to increased nationalist influence on the CCP. Next, I assess these claims based on another case study of territorial dispute, albeit much larger, with Taiwan. The reason for choosing Taiwan is that there exists a major similarity between it and Diaoyu insomuch as they are both contested territories “wrongfully” occupied by separate parties, and they both fit within the CCP's narrative of being stolen from the mainland and must be returned to complete PRC unification. Both have been the topic of much debate and scrutiny and have now both led to military involvement, albeit just demonstrations for the time being, and will likely continue to be contested points going into the future.
In an essay titled “Popular Nationalism and China's Japan Policy: the Diaoyu Island protests, 2012-2013” several authors argue that Chinese nationalism played a key role in why the CCP subsequently responded with military action. The Diaoyu/Senkaku islands have been a point of dispute between China and Japan for decades dating back to 1971 when the first instance of a major protest broke out.5 The claim over sovereignty has long been a strain on Sino-Japanese relations as neither side is willing to concede the islands over to the other. Since 1971, there have been multiple instances of protests breaking out in China, the most notable being 1996, 2006 and 2012.
The latest incident was sparked in August 2012, when the Japanese government attempted to purchase these islands from a private owner with the intent of returning the land to government control to diffuse the situation, but these actions were instead interpreted by the Chinese as an attempt to 'nationalize' Japan's claims to the island.6 The authors go on to argue that these latest protests which took place in late September and early October, were unique in that they not only included some of the most violent actions and outspoken Japanese criticism,7 but that the CCP responded in a different fashion than what observers were used to. It has been observed that the traditional CCP handling of the protestors in regards to the islands was to initially let them express their anger towards Japan.
Then once relations had been strained enough with Japan and had sufficiently concerned the West, the CCP would 'nip it in the bud'8 to end the protests and to prove a point of restraint and rationality in the international community before resuming talks. Yet this time, the national calls to “start fighting”9 Japan were instead met with a decision to first send out armed warships from the People's Liberation Army to the islands in December, and then fly patrol planes and fighter jets around the same area the following month. This type of response was unprecedented in recent memory of PLA activity and thus shocked many observers and experts. The analysis and conclusion of this essay can be summarized by the following points.
I believe this last point is worth examining further within the greater context of Chinese politics. Is the CCP really faced with a new era in which it is increasingly forced to adhere to national sentiment when addressing foreign affairs? Additionally, is it reasonable to conclude that the world might be faced with a more aggressive and unpredictable China that would be willing to take radical measures such as warfare to achieve its goals? The sentiment expressed in the above essay seems to lean in this direction. Yet a problem with the conclusion is that its applied to China almost in an absolute sense. The closing statement of the essay ends with “Let us hope out luck holds, and that no Chinese dies soon at the hand of the Japanese—whether over the Diaoyu issue or otherwise. The peace and prosperity of the twenty-first century depends on it.”11
The idea that China would immediately respond with launching an ill fated war and that only China would react with force should one of its citizens die at the hand of another nation, ignores or dismisses the reality that any other major power would also likely act the same way. Is it truly fair to call China's rise as the biggest threat to the peace and security of the world? Its quite likely as these authors as well as other have suggested, that China in a sense has ascended into a new era of power with the capability to project itself in a manner different than its ability to do so in the past. This new power has definitely had a noticeable affect on emboldening both the CCP and general public's attitude and actions towards other countries. However to assume that with this new found power, the CCP would so willingly jump to warfare before exhausting other options, and risk destabilizing the country and the economy over the fate of several islands seems slightly erroneous.
More so, if you take this narrative and try to apply it to the Taiwan issue for example, it does not quite fit with the reality of what has happened. In other words, based on the conclusions of the previous essay, it would seem logical that the Chinese people will increasingly put pressure on the CCP to resolve the Taiwan Straight issue sooner rather than later. As China continues to promote the idea of its increased power at home, it will conversely be pressured by growing domestic expectations to stand up against Taiwan and the US over the issue. Eventually it will succumb and likely take some type of military action at the risk of inducing larger conflict.
This scenario is as likely to occur as the CCP announcing tomorrow it has allowed Taiwan to gain independence. So far to date, even during this time of 'increased expectations” nothing the CCP has done has indicated that such a shift has occurred. The government is more or less content with maintaining the status quo of “one china two systems” agreed upon in the 1992 Consensus than escalating tensions. This status quo has been largely in place since 2008, when previous President Ma of the KMT party took back power and expressed willingness to adhere to this consensus and follow a much more cooperative stance towards mainland China. He has worked hard to engage in policy that promotes cross-Straight cooperation through economic exchange.12
However Taiwan has just elected Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party's as the next president.13 The outcome has already been expected for quite sometime, and something that the CCP is begrudging about, with valid reason. Historically the DPP has expressed interest and openness to the idea of gaining independence from the mainland, something that Beijing is very determined to not let happen. Furthermore, the new president has not mentioned whether she will continue to adapt the strategy of promoting the status quo or pursue other measure, another matter equally concerning for Beijing.14 But in spite of preparing for and accepting this outcome, the actions the CCP and notably Xi Jinping of late have both taken, portray a much more moderate leadership than the one previously suggested.
Back in November, Xi and Ma unexpectedly announced they were to meet in Singapore to engage in cross-Strait dialogues over the future of Tibet. The nature of these talks was clear; China is very much going to play an active role with engaging Taiwan, whether the new President likes it or not. Most importantly, Xi identified two paths Taiwan could take, continuing following the path of Ma (peaceful development) and build on these last 8 years, or it could choose to take the path of renewed confrontation, separation and zero-sum hostility. Furthermore, he expressed that the greatest threat to cross-Straight relations is independence.15 While the CCP has expressed that it would be wiling to overlook the DPP's past misgivings, a clear message was sent to Tsai that times are different and Beijing would not tolerate the DPP rekindling that discourse.
Now is this rhetoric all that much different than what the CCP has expressed in the past? The idea of “one country two systems” dates as far back to Deng Xiaoping when he used this term throughout the eighties.16 Hu Jintao following the passage of the anti-secession law in 200517 stated four points called the 'Absolutely Nots'18 which clearly states China's willingness to escalate tensions in order to prevent Taiwan for independence. The CCP has long viewed Taiwan as the biggest blemish on their record of reunifying China and has staked a large portion of its legitimacy on its claim that it will one day reunite with Taiwan. This desire for unification is very much reflected in the sentiment of mainland people, many whom have blood ties and long standing relationships with friends and associates on the island. Now with this in mind, it seems quite obvious of a conclusion to state that Taiwan might be an exception to the trend suggested in the earlier discussed paper. Clearly the Chinese people would not fervently pressure their government to go to war with Taiwan anytime soon based on impatience with the status quo. If anything, the status quo is preferred by almost everyone, including the Taiwanese.19
That being said, should the new president take a more confrontational approach to Beijing and deviate from the status quo, which most analysts do not see happening in the first place,20 then should the CCP's reaction entail military action, no one should be that surprised. Richard Bush contends that in addition to military action, there are a number of other economic measures that could be taken to significantly cut off and starve much of the Taiwanese economy. Even initial military action would likely be a significant buildup of Taiwan specific arms on the coast and a blatant display of power via military exercises in the Strait.21
In the context of this paper, there are two specific case studies related to China's international relations. One is the ownership of the Diaoyu Islands and the other is the Taiwan problem. Both sets of islands share a common factor insomuch as they represent territory that at one point belonged to the Chinese empire according to the CCP. Both islands are now staked to the overall legitimacy of the CCP.
With the Diaoyu islands we have multiple instances of mainland dissent over the Japanese occupation of the islands, where as with Taiwan there has never been clear documentation as to any demonstrations by the Chinese people towards the Taiwanese or their government. This coming despite the valid arguments that since 2008 the CCP has not only grown stronger, but it and the people are both aware of this fact and wish to see China play a larger role in international politics.
The Diaoyu islands represent an exception to how China will conduct itself, rather than an indicator.
Yet in a broader sense, I believe that the Diaoyu islands represent an exception to how China will conduct itself rather than an indicator. Throwing aside the conversation over whether Japan should continue to repent and be held accountable for the actions of a much older regime, the fact still stands that the Chinese people have not forgotten the atrocities committed and the colonizing efforts made by the Meiji government in the mainland. I believe its a fairer argument to say that Chinese nationalism could influence how the CCP continues to deal with Japan in the future, but not so much other nations or situations like that in Taiwan. Yes the CCP has staked a portion of its legitimacy in its fight against Japan, but if it wishes to free itself from being controlled by a mob-mentality, it might be wise to try and come up with ways going forward to try and deconstruct the current anti-Japanese discourse it promotes and encourages starting in elementary schools all the way up through college.
However in cases like Taiwan, and even the South China Sea, it is true that the CCP is playing a more dangerous game of brinksmanship the more it draws distinct lines in the sand and invokes extreme ultimatums in the face of diplomacy. And perhaps this more confrontational approach is a reflection of the belief that a stronger nation should and can do more to stake its claim in world. Yet this last point should not really come as any surprise to other major powers; China is just following in the footsteps of the countries who first decided to carve it up over 150 years ago. Yes the predictability of a nation goes out the window when there are accidental deaths involved, and this should absolutely be considered when it comes to the cases of Diaoyu Islands and Taiwan should an independence movement develop in future years.
How China would act is as uncertain as its ever been, but there are instances such as the frequent border skirmishes between North and South Korea over the years that fortunately have not led to increased conflict to act as a beacon of hope. If a nation like NK, practically defined by their ultimatums and defiance can abstain from total war, the there is no reason a nation like China cannot either. The CCP is smart enough to know its limits, and the energetic nationalism that is often on display is likely not as blood thirsty as some like to portray it. As a country grows stronger, so do its expectations and desires, but this reality in the case of China is something that should be accommodated rather than criticized. For the first time, the CCP feels strong enough to let its own people voice their concerns and not have to worry about what other countries might say. Other countries would be wise to better hear China's concerns.
Bush Richard, 'Taiwan's January 2016 Elections and their Implications for Relations with the United States and China' Brookings Institute, December 2015.
Greis, Peter Hayes. 'China's New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Dimplomacy', University of California Press, 2004.
Greis, Peter Hayes; Steiger Derek; Wang Tao, 'Popular Nationalism and China's Japan Policy; the Diaoyu Island Protests, 2012-2013' Routledge Taylor and Francis Group. Journal of Contemporary China, 2015.
First Female Election; China Warns of 'Grave Challenges' CNN January 17, 2016. retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/16/asia/taiwan-election/.
Full Text of China's Anti-Secession Law,14 March 2005. BBC News. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4347555.stm,
Katie Hunt & Kristie Lu Stout “Taiwan wins its first female election; China warns of 'grave challenges' CNN 2016. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/16/asia/taiwan-election/.
Qiao Mu, 'Changes in China's Domestic Politics and Implications for Taiwan' Taiwan Research Programme, London School of Economics. Taiwan in Comparative Perspective, Vol. 4, December 2012, ISSN 1752-7732.
Weiss, Jessica Chen ‘Authoritarian signaling, mass audiences, and nationalist protest in China’, International Organization 67(1), 2013.
Zhao, Suisheng, 'Foreign Policy Implications of Chinese Nationalism Revisited: The Strident Turn', Journal of Contemporary China, DOI:10.1080/10670564.2013.766379 (2013)
1.) In fact, one could make the argument that China entered the Korean war with the intent of maintaining stability around its border of Korea. It was not in the interest of the CCP to have a unified Korea backed by the US on their own border.
2.) Deng's word have been repeatedly adhered to in the past even in the face of humiliation. The reason being that China's development model, especially in the 1990s, was so dependent on foreign technology that it could not realistically achieve its goals of modernization if it isolated itself from the US and Japan. Begrudgingly or not, China was often forced to back down and concede ground to the US; which was also a source of domestic criticism.
3.) Zhao, Suisheng, 'Foreign Policy Implications of Chinese Nationalism Revisited: The Strident Turn', Journal of Contemporary China, DOI:10.1080/10670564.2013.766379 (2013) pp. 2-3.
4.) Jessica Chen Weiss argues that the CCP utilizes Chinese nationalism like a on/off switch to manipulate its image in foreign policy to appear more rationale in the face of fervent nationalism. ‘Authoritarian signaling, mass audiences, and nationalist protest in China’, International Organization 67(1), (2013), pp. 26–27.
5.) Peter Hayes Greis. 'China's New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Dimplomacy', University of California Press, 2004. pp. 116-133.
6.) Peter Hayes Greis, Derek Steiger, and Tao Wang, 'Popular Nationalism and China's Japan Policy; the Diaoyu Island Protests, 2012-2013' Routledge Taylor and Francis Group. Journal of Contemporary China, 2015
8.) See Jessica Chen Weiss, ‘Authoritarian signaling, mass audiences, and nationalist protest in China’ above.
9.) Peter Hayes Greis. 'China's New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Dimplomacy', University of California Press, 2004. pp. 116-133.
10.) Ibid. pp. 12-13
11.) Ibid. pp. 13
12.) Richard Bush, 'Taiwan's January 2016 Elections and their Implications for Relations with the United States and China' Brookings Institute, December 2015 pp. 1.
13.) Katie Hunt & Kristie Lu Stout “Taiwan Wins it First Female Election; China Warns of 'Grave Challenges' CNN January 17, 2016. retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/16/asia/taiwan-election/
14.) Richard Bush, 'Taiwan's January 2016 Elections and their Implications for Relations with the United States and China' Foreign Policy at Brookings Institute, December 2015 pp. 1-2
15.) Ibid, pp. 13.
16.) Qiao Mu, 'Changes in China's Domestic Politics and Implications for Taiwan' Taiwan Research Programme, London School of Economics. Taiwan in Comparative Perspective, Vol. 4, December 2012, pp. 201–214
17.) Full Text of China's Anti-Secession Law,14 March 2005. BBC News. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4347555.stm
18.) They are as follows, 1) Absolutely not waver on the principle for One China; 2) Absolutely not give up efforts for peaceful reunification; 3) Absolutely not change the guideline of pinning hope on the Taiwanese people; 4) Absolutely not compromise in fighting against Taiwanese secession activities. See Qiao Mu, 'Changes in China's Domestic Politics and Political Implications for Taiwan' Taiwan Research Programme, London School of Economics. Taiwan in Comparative Perspective, Vol. 4, December 2012, pp. 201–214 ISSN 1752-7732
19.) Richard Bush, 'Taiwan's January 2016 Elections and their Implications for Relations with the United States and China' Foreign Policy at Brookings Institute, December 2015 pp. 1-10
20.) It's been noted that the DPP came to popularity over its domestic and political reform agenda rather than due to its stance on the mainland. In fact, most people still support the KMT's approach towards China and hope that Tsing chooses to emulate this going forward.
21.) Richard Bush, 'Taiwan's January 2016 Elections and their Implications for Relations with the United States and China' Brookings Institute, December 2015 pp. 16.