By Jennie Welch
For decades, the term “core interest” has been applied by the Chinese government to issues related to its territorial integrity, issues such as Tibet and Taiwan. Territorial integrity is an essential aspect of the Chinese state’s identity and has national significance in large part due to foreign powers’ infringement on Chinese sovereignty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In recent times, perceived challenges to those core interests – such as meetings between heads of state and the Dalai Lama or U.S. arms sales to Taiwan – have often been followed by harsh diplomatic rhetoric and threats from the Chinese government.
Recently, China has labeled its territorial claims in both the South and East China Seas as “core interests.” While China’s claims to these areas and the categorization of territorial integrity as a core interest are not new, that Chinese officials have given the claims the level of significance applied to Tibet and Taiwan is an escalation of rhetoric. This rhetoric has been backed by demonstrations of naval prowess, threats of force, large nationalist protests, and economic coercion. What explains China’s more assertive stance on territorial claims in the South and East China Seas?
There are two ongoing domestic phenomena that promote assertiveness in Chinese foreign policy: the political influence of military leaders and the growth of nationalism. China’s military officials – such as the new air force commander Ma Xiaotian – have become increasingly vocal about pursuing a more forceful Chinese stance in situations such as the South China Sea territorial disputes.
Military voices may soon find a more attentive ear in the civilian government. Through his previous position in the Ministry of Defense, the newly minted party chief Xi Jinping is known to have closer relations with the military than his predecessors and has been critical of comments that China may be becoming more aggressive.
Xi will also be under pressure from the millions of Chinese who have demonstrated their foreign policy views through efforts such as the September anti-Japanese protests. The growth of nationalism in China partially stems from the government’s “Patriotic Education” campaign, which focuses on China suffering from and eventually overcoming foreign imperialism. Nationalism is also a product of China’s rising status in the international community. Younger Chinese have grown up in an era where China is seen an increasingly powerful and influential nation, ascending into the foreseeable future while the current leading power – the United States – suffers from political grid-lock, failed foreign policies, and economic woes. As a result, the forces of domestic nationalism tend to push for a more assertive China, one that reflects the confidence and potential of its people.
Domestic factors are certainly influencing Chinese foreign policy. However, it is uncertain the degree to which these pressures will dominate. Backlash from neighboring countries and the U.S. may well counterbalance Chinese military and nationalistic opinions. The Chinese “charm offensive” that won over its neighbors in the 1990’s and early 2000’s was mostly successful, until China’s forceful handling of competing territorial claims encouraged Asian states to beseech the United States to renew it focus on the region. The U.S. military and diplomatic rebalance towards Asia will likely restrict Chinese influence and military movements in the region, and is viewed by some Chinese as an attempt to contain China’s rise. This generation of Chinese leaders may therefore feel that it is more prudent to avoid further alienating regional powers and prevent hedging towards the United States.
Xi Jinping’s perspectives on the future of his country’s role in Asia and the world may remain unclear for the foreseeable future. Yet observers can be certain of this: Xi’s policies will be bounded by domestic pressures urging assertiveness and a more vocal China.
Ms. Jennifer Welch is a Research Intern with the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies.