On October 27, the Obama administration ordered the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen to patrol the area near China’s man-made islands and sail within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef. The Lassen was followed by a Chinese guided-missile destroyer and a naval patrol ship. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a news conference on the same day that the “illegal” action of the Lassen threatened China’s sovereignty and that China will not “swallow silently any damage or threat to its sovereign rights and legitimate security interests.”
This commentary will focus on the effect of the Lassen patrol on Chinese nationalist sentiment. How did Chinese commentators and the public regard the incident? Could nationalist sentiment influence China’s foreign policies or constrain leaders? Would the Chinese leadership take advantage of this tide of anti-U.S. sentiment to make bolder statements about China’s willingness to defend its “sovereignty” in the South China Sea?
Drawing from a reading of news reports and editorials in major official Chinese media outlets in both Mandarin and English (among them People’s Daily, Xinhua, and Global Times) as well as social media sites such as Sina Weibo, the tentative conclusion is that commentators and popular opinion, even though indignant about the USS Lassen patrol, differ on how China should respond to the United States. One group supports tougher policies, such as a commitment to use force and even go to war, if further transgressions of Chinese sovereignty follow, while another group argues that China should not exaggerate the issue and escalate tensions with the U.S. This suggests that despite the rise in assertive nationalism after Xi Jinping took power, moderate voices have not been entirely eclipsed.
According to the hawkish view, the United States was using the Lassen patrol to test China’s willingness to defend its “sovereignty” in the South China Sea and if China does not respond with the necessary toughness, such challenges will continue and become more serious in the future. Some argue that Beijing needs to state that it is ready to use force if these challenges escalate and that it would not be afraid of war. This would not only help to deter the United States in the future, it would also send a message to neighboring countries that have disputes with China and that might feel emboldened after this incident. Commentators holding this view often refer to past crises between the United States and China to inflame anti-U.S. sentiment domestically; for example, they bring up the EP-3 incident, which involved a collision between a U.S. surveillance aircraft and a Chinese aircraft fighter that led to the death of the Chinese pilot in 2001. From some of this author’s conversations in Beijing (summer 2015) with editors and reporters at CCTV, People’s Daily, and Global Times, memory of the EP-3 incident still weighs heavily. What they resent in particular is that the United States regards its surveillance activities as a routine and legitimate even when they bring U.S. planes close to the Chinese border.
On the recent U.S. freedom of navigation patrol, Sina Weibo users have expressed, to a varying extent, their dissatisfaction with the official response, which they considered too mild. One user asked how Russia’s Putin would have reacted if he was in the same situation. Others drew up plans to encircle and entangle American warships in fishing nets during the next patrol.
According to the more moderate view, by contrast, China should avoid escalating tensions with the United States, stay calm, and respond rationally, taking its long-term interests into account. These commentators worry that hawkish statements in response to the incident will only alarm other players, such as Japan and the Philippines. They emphasize that, realistically, the Lassen patrol did not seriously challenge Chinese island building projects or target solely China. The U.S. was only putting up a show without real teeth to reassure its allies. However, other motivations offered for this course of action are less reassuring. For instance, some commentators argue that China should not intensify tensions with the United States at this time because that could lead to repercussions. It is in China’s interest to minimize anti-China sentiment in the region and take advantage of the hesitation of other players in order to complete the island construction projects. Finally, they urge the Chinese people to recognize that this American action is a normal challenge to China’s rise, which Chinese people need to meet, not with fury and resentment, but with cool-headedness and faith in their government.
This brief analysis of Chinese sentiment in the aftermath of the freedom of navigation patrol shows that there are both worrying and encouraging news for the United States and China’s neighbors. What is worrying is that even though both sides of the spectrum disagree on what policy course to follow, they remain staunchly nationalistic. While hawks and moderates might differ on the treatment of minor incidents, such as the Lassen patrol, both would be unlikely to relent when faced with major provocations. Another worry is that China’s willingness to shelve minor disputes does not always signal good intentions, accommodation or compromise. China might simply be “biding its time” in order to accomplish further milestones to assert its control in the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, the good news is that Chinese nationalist sentiment and media commentary is not as emotional and one-sided as it sometimes appears. That voices advocating for moderate policies can still be heard even in such a nationalist outlet as the Global Times Chinese edition shows that leaders still have room to handle the situation without being pushed by public opinion into the most aggressive response.
Nhung Bui is a PhD Candidate in the Politics Department at Princeton University and a research associate at the Center for International Studies (SCIS) at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. She works on Chinese media and nationalist propaganda.