China Power

Is China’s ‘Assertiveness’ in the South China Sea All About Nationalism?

The narrative of a nationalistic China obscures the real dynamics in the South China Sea.

Is China’s ‘Assertiveness’ in the South China Sea All About Nationalism?
Credit: US Navy/ YouTube still

In a number of recent discussions I’ve been a part of, “nationalism” has been repeatedly raised to describe China’s policies toward its territorial disputes with its neighbors. Also, this term has often appeared in international media stories about China’s stance in the East and South China Seas disputes (for example, here, here, and here.) The idea is that “nationalism” is unnecessarily — or even dangerously — playing an important role in China’s policies toward the ongoing maritime disputes in the region. Is that true?

Describing China’s stance as merely “nationalist” oversimplifies China’s strategies, policies, and behaviors. These critiques also have a bad habit of foregoing a discussion of nationalism in a general sense and instead implying that only China’s disagreements with others are proof of “narrow nationalism” or even “expansionism.” These misconceptions — that China’s behaviors are only driven by nationalism, and that Chinese nationalism is somehow distinct from similar tendencies in, say, Vietnam or the Philippines — only cloud an already complicated situation.

When it comes to territorial disputes, states can be more or less “confident” or “assertive” in their behavior, whether they are “nationalist” or not. In the South China Sea, the other claimants have broken their promises, incrementally occupied a majority of the islands and rocks, and “unilaterally” changed the status quo; that situation is causing China’s reactions now. But accusations against China have dominated, perhaps simply because China is China. In a statement given to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear already made it clear that in the Spratly islands, “Vietnam has 48 outposts; the Philippines, 8; China, 8; Malaysia, 5, and Taiwan, 1.” No wonder Greg Austin, writing for The Diplomat in 2015, raised a sharp question: “Who Is the Biggest Aggressor in the South China Sea?”

There is a clear line between preserving sovereign rights and using territorial disputes as an excuse for expansionism. China is often accused of the latter, but the reasons for China to have reminded relatively restrained (and thus less nationalistic) are obvious. In both the East and the West, history has proven that extreme nationalists can go to war with neighboring countries when two driving factors are present: the accumulation of national power, and the emergence of a collective identity. Such was the case in the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. In East Asia’s modern history, China was a victim of its neighbor’s extreme nationalism and imperialism.

Now China is rising rapidly in both economic power and national pride. Given the enduring maritime disputes between China and its neighbors, some believe that history is going to repeat itself: a “nationalistic” China would go for expansionism, and might even “claim its revenge” for historical wrongs. This is a misperception — or perhaps a “preconception” — of China’s firmly intended peaceful rise. This theory obviously overlooks the fact that, even regarding the disputes over Chinese sovereign interests to which other claimants had no objections before, China still had always proposed a peaceful solution through negotiations. Meanwhile, as Austin pointed out, other countries responded with “incremental occupations” and Vietnam even “doubled its holdings” in the past years while “China has not physically occupied additional features.” So who really is guilty of “expansionism”?

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Overall, there doesn’t seem to be a direct link between China’s “reactive assertiveness” and “nationalism,” although there is a certain level of nationalist sentiments, for example, among China’s netizens. The Chinese government, however, wants to avoid having its policies fall into the negative spectrum of nationalist sentiments. Blaming China for its “nationalism” in the South China Sea issue may be an case of “judging by size,” and it is not helping to mitigate tensions.