Subi Reef (渚碧礁,) as seen from a U.S. NASA satellite on 31 August 2015. Credit: Flickr / rikyunreal.

Subi Reef (渚碧礁,) as seen from a U.S. NASA satellite on 31 August 2015. Credit: Flickr / rikyunreal.

By: Billy Gore


From island-building to maritime blockades, China has been acting increasingly assertive in the South China Sea. There has been much speculation as to the exact causes of China’s actions, ranging from competition between China’s many maritime agencies to hawkish factions within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It is important to emphasize that China’s actions cannot be boiled down to one factor alone. This article explores the role of nationalism in driving tensions in the South China Sea, in an attempt to shed light on one of the many contributing factors to China’s maritime activities.

Nationalism has long been cited as a reason for China’s increased territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea. In the days following the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision to deny China’s claims on territory in the South China Sea, some turned to nationalism to explain the shrill Chinese response to the ruling. However, the role of nationalism in Beijing’s decision-making is more nuanced than previously thought.

A dominant view among the international media (CNN, Guardian, CNBC) is that nationalism partly drives China’s foreign policy in the South China Sea, acting as a tool to increase the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy to govern. This is because the CCP has drifted away from the disastrous Marxist and Maoist ideologies that led to China’s economic failure during much of the 20th century. By moving away from these ideologies, the CCP has become exposed. Having lost its ideological relevance, the CCP is able to retain its right to the heavenly mandate through delivering real improvements to the quality of life of its citizens. Yet with the onset of a now undeniable economic slowdown, even this pillar of legitimacy is eroding.

While the Hu Jintao era (2002-2012) was characterized by an emphasis on economic growth as a source of legitimacy, the Xi Jinping era (2012-present) has thus far shown a turn towards nationalism. Two weeks after the new Politburo committee was announced, Xi unveiled his “China Dream” policy, which by his own words aimed to accomplish “the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.” The increase in acts that visibly assert China’s sovereignty, such as the building of military outposts on reefs in the Spratly Islands and the maritime blockade of Philippine fishing vessels in the Scarborough Shoal, adds evidence to this nationalist turn, as the Chinese government aims to project an image of protecting China’s territorial integrity.

Anti-Japanese demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy in Beijing on 18 September 2012.

Anti-Japanese demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy in Beijing on 18 September 2012. Credit: Wikimedia.

Nationalism has therefore been increasingly used by the CCP to plug the ideological gap that has been created by China’s reform and opening up. But fomenting nationalist sentiment has the potential to boil over. And another downside is that policymakers may be forced to enact certain policies to appease popular nationalists.

Moderated sentiment over the South China Sea

Foreign Affairs columnist Wang Jisi,argued that widespread nationalist fervor among the Chinese population is putting pressure on the CCP to move away from a policy of tao guang yang hui (biding one’s time and hiding one’s capabilities) and towards one that is more assertive. Indeed there is evidence of this dynamic at play. The Japanese government’s arrest of Chinese fishermen in 2010 near the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which contravened the Sino-Japanese Fisheries Agreement, led to large-scale protests across China and a huge outpouring of online criticism against Beijing. Chinese authorities had to be appropriately severe in their response, demanding the release of the fishermen and withholding shipments of rare earth minerals to Japan.

If popular nationalism has the capacity to drive Chinese foreign policy in the East China Sea, surely the same would be true in the South China Sea? Surprisingly, the answer is no.

Assertiveness in the South China Sea cannot be derived from nationalists forcing China into an aggressive stance, as the level of nationalist sentiment towards the territorial dispute is too low. A crude demonstration of this compares the level of public outrage over China’s different territorial disputes. In the 2012 dispute with Japan over the East China Sea, there were widespread demonstrations across China. Yet when the USS Lassen sailed within China’s 12-nautical-mile claim around Subi Reef in the South China Sea, the result was only one Chinese pensioner protesting outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

More recently, there were demonstrations against the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling against China over its South China Sea claims. Yet even these demonstrations pale in comparison to the outburst against Japan in 2012, when 2,500 people protested outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and Japanese businesses were boycotted and defaced.

Military action in the South China Sea also remains an unpopular choice for the Chinese public. A 2013 survey of Chinese public opinion by the Perth USAsia Centre showed that out of 10 policy options, military action in handling the dispute was the second-least favorable option.

There are two factors that have contributed to this lack of nationalist fervor over the South China Sea. First, although there was extensive patriotic re-education after the Tiananmen Square massacre, there exists a quiet majority in China who favor compromising on international issues and who, although viewing the South China Sea from a historical perspective, are rational and pragmatic in their approach to the dispute. For example, in a study of nationalism on Chinese social network Weibo, Cairns and Carlson found that during China’s 2012 territorial dispute with Japan, moderate voices effectively countered harder nationalist ones and dominated the online discourse about the dispute.

Second, domestic public opinion towards China’s neighbors is largely informed by a narrative that splits states into the historic aggressors and those who have been subjected to the will of the aggressors. Japan, as the figurative historic bully to China, elicits a far more severe response from the Chinese public in comparison to the littoral nations in the South China Sea, who are seen to have shared China’s experience of subjugation.

If the domestic population’s nationalist views towards the dispute are in fact moderate, then popular nationalist pressure on the CCP will be relatively limited. But if nationalism is not hemming the CCP into acting assertively in the South China Sea, what role does it play?

A map of South China Sea claims. Credit: Voice of America / Wikimedia.

A map of South China Sea claims. Credit: Voice of America / Wikimedia.

Political points, with few risks

Asserting China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea offers an easy way for the CCP to gain political legitimacy. The danger of courting popular nationalism is that the CCP exposes itself to criticism, as it did in the 2012 Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute when many of the critical online comments were directed at Beijing rather than Tokyo.

However, the South China Sea represents an opportunity whereby the CCP can reap the political benefits of appearing nationalistic, while running little risk of instigating a large-scale nationalist demonstration that could quickly escalate into a legitimacy challenge.

Although nationalist zeal towards the South China Sea is weak, the majority of Chinese still tacitly support China’s stance. The 2013 survey cited above found that only 6 percent of Chinese respondents were dissatisfied with the government’s performance in the South China Sea.

Furthermore, any protests that have happened over the South China Sea have been suitably containable. For example, the recent nationalist outburst over the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling has been small and easy to quell. In Henan, three people were detained by the police for organizing a disruptive boycott of the American fast food giant KFC over the ruling, and the CCP has been very proactive in censoring posts related to the South China Sea. This means that even if small nationalist protests start to form, the CCP has a failsafe in the fact that it can effectively supress these small forms of nationalist dissent.

In summary, muscle-flexing and assertive policies offer a win-win scenario for the CCP. The existence of a tacitly nationalistic population means that Beijing can avoid the risk of a legitimacy challenge while boosting the government’s popularity among the Chinese public.



Billy Gore holds a bachelor’s degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Bristol. He previously taught English in Suzhou and studied Mandarin in Shijiazhuang. His articles have appeared in WeChat Channel, International Shijiazhuang and University of Bristol’s student newspaper. He has been assisting YCW London over the summer and will soon move to Hangzhou to study Mandarin through the British Council.



The Appeal of Nationalism: Explaining China’s Assertiveness in the South China Sea
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