Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai’s recent remarks about other countries meddling in the South China Sea disputes were a clear warning to the United States. Though on the surface the comments were restrained, using the analogy of playing with fire undoubtedly escalates the diplomatic war of words that has been unfolding.
But even more ominous could be the remarks he made over the sentiments of average Chinese citizens. To quote: ‘…the Chinese public is following very closely whether the United States will adopt a just and objective position on matters like these.’
It’s common for Chinese statements responding to foreign policies inimical to Chinese interests to portray such actions as ‘hurting the feelings’ of the Chinese people. In this context, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has served as a spokesperson for the larger Chinese population. The CCP, under this view, is but an agent serving the wishes of its principal, the fragile feelings of all 1.3 billion Chinese.
Recent developments in the Chinese media have, however, altered this principal-agent relationship. The state-controlled media no longer monopolizes information going into and coming out of China. This fracturing of channels of communication into and out of the country has allowed average Chinese citizens to formulate and present their own opinions on important issues. The ability to sidestep CCP control of expression increasingly influences Chinese foreign policy.
The CCP has grappled with how best to control the new media environment. It has had to delicately balance allowing disgruntled citizens room to express their displeasure and relieve some pressure, while at the same time restraining freedom of expression to prevent it from becoming combustible and possibly turning against the Party itself. Yet even with this fear in mind, it appears the Party still actively supports nationalist expressions when they converge with Party interests. The CCP has selectively allowed some public outcries against foreign entities while always trying to contain them so that they don’t get out of hand. Examples include the 1999 anti-US protests following the Belgrade embassy bombing and the 2005 anti-Japanese riots.
These tactics are often dismissed as diversionary tactics by the Party to deflect negative sentiments from domestic problems onto international adversaries. As this narrative goes, the illegitimate and insecure CCP is worried about its image with the people, so it occasionally foments anti-foreign sentiment to replace the discredited ideologies of Mao and Marx and enhance its image as the guardian of Chinese national pride.
This argument is plausible, and there’s certainly evidence to support it. But there is another, non-mutually exclusive, argument that could be made. Perhaps the CCP has learned from dealing with its more democratic counterparts the effectiveness of using domestic politics as an excuse for intransigence in negotiations. From Taiwan to the Dalai Lama, Chinese negotiators have been told to be patient and understanding of US actions because US policymakers are hostages of their domestic constituents, and so must occasionally promote policies that may inadvertently damage the overall Sino-US relationship.
Perhaps its China’s turn to use this excuse. Like burning the bridges behind one’s army before engaging in combat, Cui’s comments could be a warning to the other disputants and the United States that, if they are not careful, China will open the floodgates of outrage from its citizens and therefore greatly reduce its room to compromise. The message is subtle yet clear: negotiate with us, the reasonable leadership, now, or deal with the unruly and unpredictable Chinese population. This type of proposition is consistent with the CCP’s domestic compact with society in which it consistently compares the end of Party rule with the immediate and inevitable emergence of chaos and disaster. Whether in foreign or domestic policy, the Party likes to present itself as the ‘good cop,’ with the unreasonable masses serving as the ‘bad cop.’
Of course, the other audience for this message is the Chinese population. Cui’s remarks could be a cue for the patriotic online community to respond to the disputes and call for a more hard-line stance. Were there to be a public outcry against the United States and other South China Sea claimants, and if the outrage were to escape the censoring efforts of the Great Firewall, then it would be evidence that the Party is hoping for public opinion to bolster its bargaining position.
It’s hard to tell in China how organic nationalist sentiments are, and to what extent they are fomented and/or manipulated by Beijing. But it’s plausible that, engineered or not, the opportunistic CCP is now attempting to use a potential weakness – uncontrolled public opinion – as a tool in foreign policy. In this light, Cui’s remarks could be a concealed threat to the United States and the region that the window for a fair, negotiated settlement is closing. If this opportunity is missed, then China’s counterparts will hear the common refrain recited numerous times to China: ‘It’s nothing personal, just domestic politics.’
Matt Anderson is a Resident Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS.