“Our best chance of avoiding antagonism with China is to open up the black box of Chinese domestic politics, look inside, and figure out what makes China act as it does on the world stage.” – Susan L. Shirk (China: Fragile Superpower)
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the latest “2015 Defense of Japan” White Paper is the manner in which it explicitly identifies China as Japan’s biggest security threat (with about one third of a section dedicated to China alone), particularly over issues of maritime security. While the Chinese Foreign Ministry and media were understandably defensive, the Japanese perspective raises some salient points (even if the focus on Chinese oil platforms in the East China Sea was perhaps misguided). Not only has modern China undergone a rapid and historically unprecedented ascent to near-superpower status, but its lack of governmental transparency and soft power deficit have failed to reassure its Asian neighbors. Combine this with growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, and its ongoing military buildup (particularly naval), and it is not difficult to build a narrative in which Pacific Asia should be wary of a potential regional rival (one supported by the growth in overall Asian defense expenditure compared to the rest of the world).
To be fair, this account fails to acknowledge China’s record of peacefully resolving territorial disputes. More worryingly, it also risks triggering the “politics of emotion” and a potential crisis. In the case of China, this becomes especially worrying given the dependence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on domestic Chinese nationalism as a source of political legitimacy. Only by unpacking this can one hope to better understand the thinking behind Chinese foreign policy.
Nationalism and Cultural Identity
While it should hardly be a surprise that one of the world’s oldest civilizations maintains a strong link between nationalism and cultural identity, what is shocking is the level to which this exists. In a recent study examining Chinese public opinion on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island and South China Sea disputes, it was found that respondents overwhelmingly supported all Chinese claims, up to and including the controversial “nine-dashed line,” with an average response of more than 90 percent confidence. Much of this nationalistic sentiment has its roots in the Patriotic Education Campaign put in place under Deng Xiaoping. Known for his widespread economic reforms, Deng provided an alternative to communist dogma for a nation disillusioned with Maoism, instead drawing “legitimacy from growth and … national pride” while “maintaining a monopolistic grip on power.” While this growth and the CCP’s victory over the Guomindang (GMD) had served as the basis for their political legitimacy for many years, disillusionment with socialism and distrust of the party, as well as wider social unrest, eventually culminated in the 1989 Tiananmen mass student protests. It was in response to this crisis of legitimacy that the CCP introduced the “Patriotic Education Campaign” in 1991, expanding it in 1994.
Under this program, “National Humiliation” and the “Century of Humiliation” (the 110-year period “from … 1839 to the triumph of the [CCP] in the Chinese civil war in 1949” during which China was “compelled by force of arms into a semi-colonial position”) were heavily emphasized. Official texts were even divided into pre-1839 and post-1839 sections to highlight the role they played in China’s history, despite the fact that no “national humiliation” textbooks had been published between 1937 and 1990. Though some scholars question whether Chinese society was truly “humiliated” at the time, alternative interpretations argue that it is not a time frame or historical period at all, but rather a historical narrative used to meet contemporary needs, obeying Mao’s dictum to “make the past serve the present.” Either way, the introduction of this campaign into Chinese schools marked the CCP’s “rediscovery of nationalism,” and its shift towards national, rather than class, consciousness and growth, as a means of attaining national unity.
While this shift was utterly necessary at the time in providing a new source of political legitimacy, it has since become a problem for the CCP, occasionally forcing it into certain foreign policy decisions. In the construction of its “historical narrative,” the CCP has put itself forward as the guarantor of Chinese national honor and therefore leaders must act this way when presented with well-publicized issues that could become crises, “[abandoning] their usual mild-mannered international demeanor, and [revealing] themselves as nationalist superheroes.” When not presented with well-publicized issues however, the CCP is able to bypass this and act purely in accordance with its national interest. This phenomenon has been described by Zheng Wang, who points out the differences in the CCP’s approach when dealing with “hot” crises (i.e., emotionally charged emergencies that are heavily covered by the domestic media) versus “cold” ones (the opposite). While “hot” incidents are characterized by escalations, accusations of conspiracy, and demands for diplomatic apologies, the “cold” are instead marked by efforts to de-escalate and cooperate. Because so many of these “hot” incidents seamlessly fit into China’s historical narrative of humiliation, the CCP must act in a certain way so as to remain consistent and guarantee its legitimacy at home. By comparison, when the public is unable to pay as close attention, the CCP shifts to calm realpolitik.
One possible explanation as to why the Chinese government is so quick to respond to nationalist sentiment may come from its authoritarian nature. While of course many Chinese individuals do not harbor nationalist sentiment, but rather a patriotic pride (with others having none at all), the issue is that the CCP worries more about those with extremist views. Unlike a democracy, which attempts to cater to the middle ground and “average voters” who determine the outcome of elections, autocracies worry more about vocal extremists, who with no civil institutions in which to channel public opinion are therefore “the most likely to take to the streets and mobilize.” The political survival of the CCP depends on its ability to maintain internal stability and prevent those on the fringe from taking action, leading to vocal minorities having a disproportionate effect on foreign policy. This has become a bigger issue as policymakers have begun using the internet as a means of discerning public opinion, seeing it as more trustworthy than canned propaganda from the official press. This is despite the fact that though online participation has shot up remarkably in China, large parts of the country remain offline.
Admittedly one should not go so far as to treat the CCP as fully subservient to the political fringe. Jessica Chen Weiss presents a compelling account of this, acknowledging that though the domestic government wishes to prevent internal instability, it also has the capacity to shut down certain protests when necessary for the achievement of greater foreign policy goals (making it reliant on domestic sentiment, but not hypersensitive). Still, it is important to classify this effect as disproportionate. It is also likely that this factor will only grow in importance over the next few years. First, recent demographic shifts would indicate a continued surge in nationalism, as the inability of the job market to accommodate the millions of young Chinese male college graduates has resulted in a “male bulge” not unlike the times of European and Japanese imperial expansion. Second, the recent adjustment of the CCP’s economic target growth rate to its lowest growth target in more than 15 years also seems to indicate that national pride will become more important to economic development as a source of political legitimacy. In other words, if the government cannot continue to promise strong year-on-year growth, its reliance on other forms of legitimacy will increase. Additionally, the ongoing efforts of China’s newly commercialized media to reinforce nationalist myths, in order to please both their audiences and the Propaganda Department, do not seem like they will end any time soon.
It is also important to remember that as in most, if not all, countries, the Chinese Foreign Ministry does not have authority over all foreign policy decisions. While routine decisions free from media publicity are handled by “professionals in the Foreign Ministry who, like diplomats everywhere, seek to improve relations with other countries,” other “domestic hot-button issues” are handled by “the politicians in the Standing Committee of the Politburo.” In other words, the central government handles “the politics of emotion” (an authority it has “[refused] to delegate”) while the Foreign Ministry handles everything else. However, while the Foreign Ministry has internalized global norms to a certain extent, the central government has maintained a “political attitude … redolent of the Middle Kingdom mentality.”
Lessons for Japan
With this link between domestic Chinese nationalism and foreign policy decision-making in mind, the question then becomes one of what lessons Japan can derive from it, through which we can draw three broad points: First, that the CCP enjoys broad, popular, near-unwavering support of its territorial claims in both the South China and East China Sea. Second, that whenever these claims are brought up in the Chinese popular consciousness by some new development, that it is the central government (as opposed to the Foreign Ministry) which handles policy decisions. And third, that when presented with this decision, the central government is far more likely to act in a manner that abides by its “national humiliation” narrative (i.e., resorting to the “politics of emotion” over realpolitik) so long as it is widely publicized.
Recognizing all this, Japan needs to fundamentally readdress its approach to counter-balancing China. The latest defense White Paper seems to indicate that Japan wishes to take a leaf out of the Philippines’ book: appealing to international law and the court of public opinion by bringing to light Chinese actions in the South and East China Sea. However, this approach seems ill-suited to Japan for several reasons. Not only is Japan a greater regional power than the Philippines (which is turning to international law precisely because it is incapable of counter-balancing China via conventional means), but this approach also fails to take into account the fact that China continues to bear a strategic mistrust of international law and multilateralism. Despite this mistrust, China maintains a very strong understanding of international law, as evidenced by its efforts to build “facts on the ground” in both contested areas through maintaining a continuous presence and developing infrastructure. Japan should follow suit and do much of the same within its side of the East China Sea, maintaining a presence through joint naval exercises in contested areas or coast guard patrols (which present a less politicized alternative) and the development of oil platforms.
More importantly, Japan should seek to remove the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute from the Chinese public eye so as to avoid once again evoking the “politics of emotion.” Unlike the Philippines or Vietnam, Japan is capable of engaging in bilateral negotiations with the Chinese on a near-equal footing, and should do this whilst continuing its efforts at “quiet deterrence.” Moreover, Japan should address lingering issues of historical reconciliation that have continued to plague its relations within the region. While this second part unfortunately remains unlikely under the current Abe administration, it remains an important manner in which this ongoing dispute could be de-escalated.
Simply put, Chinese foreign policy decision-making remains a process characterized by, and influenced by, both domestic nationalism and the Chinese political structure. The Chinese Communist Party is by design ultimately concerned with its political legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and by extension, its own survival. As such, this continues to affect both its choices and international outlook. If the Japanese approach can begin to address and incorporate this, it should inform a better strategy in dealing with China.
Charles Douglas Appleton is a research assistant with the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation (RJIF) and a graduate student with the University of Durham’s School of Government and International Affairs (SGIA). The views expressed in this article are not necessarily a reflection of those held by either institution.