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ISSN 2816-1971

  • Orson Tan

Riding the Tiger: Ethno-nationalism and China’s Foreign Policy

Updated: Feb 12

Having built up the U.S. as a perceived enemy seeking to forestall China’s rightful greatness, the CCP has few off-ramps from its aggressive stance.

Image credit: Unsplashed

*This article was first published in an edited form by The Diplomat on June 13, 2023*

It was interesting to see the various analyses coming out of the recently-concluded Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, which despite the word dialogue in its name, became more of a forum for both the United States and China to talk at each other rather than talk to each other. In fact, the common consensus coming from the dialogue was that the weekend provided another opportunity for the two countries to “lock horns” as the deteriorated US-China relationship continues to cause rising tension within the region.

Of note were remarks coming out of the Chinese camp that could hardly be termed as diplomatic. Lt. Gen. Jing Jianfeng, deputy of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, in response to the speech by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, said that the United States was “using enticements and coercion to turn other countries into foreguard weapons, in what is fundamentally a system to protect hegemony by making dominance look good.” While in his keynote speech, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu warned against the formation of “NATO-like” alliances in Asia and protested against “a certain big power’s” desire for hegemony.

In making these sharp remarks, China appears to have reached a new level of assertiveness in dealing with the region it considers to be its own backyard. As the strategic rivalry between the US and China continues, gone are the days of China playing the role of the good neighbour in the Indo-Pacific, as evidenced by its responses to the growing bilateral and multilateral partnerships the US is entering into with other countries in the region; Beijing made veiled threats regarding Filipino foreign workers in Taiwan in response to the Philippines leasing naval bases to the US and most recently, declined requests from the US for a bilateral meeting between Austin and Li on the sideline of the dialogue. For these other countries though, they view China’s increasingly aggressive response with consternation, and are worried that the lack of engagement between the two powers represents a destabilizing risk.

Despite this, it is difficult to foresee a de-escalation of this tension in the near future. It has been noted that China’s refusal to engage with the US comes from the very top of their leadership and it is hard to see Xi or any of the other top officials in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) deviating from the current line. Arguably, the casting of Washington as the enemy that is trying to contain China’s rise is as much a natural response to US actions in the region as it is a necessity of China’s foreign policy at the moment and much of this can be traced to the domestic situation in China itself, and this prevents Beijing from being perceived as backing down against American “aggression”.

While anti-American rhetoric has long been part of Beijing’s toolkit since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the years of China’s vast economic growth in the 1990s and early 2000s saw a noticeable softening of that language as Beijing focused its attention on economic development and rallied its citizens around the idea of chasing the “China Dream”. Yet that all changed in the 2010s, as troubled by the political turmoil brought about by the colour revolutions like the Arab Spring, the CCP turned its focused to maintaining the Party’s legitimacy to rule and tightening its grip on power. With his election as President in 2013, Xi led a political crackdown domestically, on the pretence of fighting corruption.

It was also during this period that the anti-American rhetoric coming from Beijing began to ramp up. In order to tighten the Party’s control, Beijing pushed the narrative that Washington was threatened by the success of China’s economic growth and thus was taking steps to contain China and prevent it from assuming its “rightful place in the global hierarchy”, thereby framing the US as a large enemy that was threatening China. The foundation of this narrative of “American bullying” has its roots in the ethno-nationalists messaging of China’s great destiny. Since his ascension to President, Xi has often referred to China’s rise as the country’s national destiny, referencing the history of Imperial China as the country’s glorious past and harping on the “century of humiliation” that denied China its place amongst the world’s powers.

The success of the CCP propaganda machine can be seen in how the Chinese citizens have internalised this ethno-nationalist message, as numerous examples of Chinese online commentators engaging in arguments and labelling any negative view of China as “Western imperialism” or “racist” and “anti-China”, or in the cases of Chinese international students in university campuses in places like Australia, US and the UK who openly challenge their lecturers and peers who comment on issues like Taiwan and Hong Kong. Ethno-nationalism has become a key tool for Xi and the CCP to not only unite the Chinese people, but also control them and ensure their continued support for the Party’s rule.

However, ethno-nationalism can be a double-edged sword. The “China’s rising, West is falling” narrative that is centred on ethno-nationalism has proved successful thus far in ensuring the continued support for the CCP’s rule, but China’s domestic challenges seem to only be growing. China has still not fully recovered from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the various lockdowns that ended only in December last year. Reports out of China indicate growing levels of youth unemployment that are worrying and the country is also battling a population crisis as low-birth rates meant that China’s population started shrinking for the first time in 2022. Coupled with the instability in the real estate market that saw large developers like Evergrande go bankrupt and Xi’s recent crackdown on the Chinese tech firms that were some of the most lucrative businesses in the country, the domestic forecast for Beijing is challenging at best.

As Xi starts his third term in power, it is hard not to equate these domestic issues with his reign as President, and thus, the Party can only return to its ethno-nationalist messaging and use Washington as a scapegoat. And the issue with ethno-nationalism is that once unleashed, it is very difficult to reign in. Given the current domestic headwinds faced by Beijing, it is difficult to see an avenue to which Beijing can tone down its current rhetoric towards the US-China rivalry without sparking a sense of betrayal from their population back home. With the Chinese people increasingly buying into the narrative of China’s own “manifest destiny”, their support for the Party in the face of the numerous challenges will hinge on Chinese officials ability to show that they are committed to “fighting” against this perceived American imperialism.

While it remains to be seen if the US and China can find a means to engage and de-escalate, and it seems that both countries are cognisant of the need to do so, Beijing’s embrace of the ethno-nationalist narrative in the past decade means the current assertive and aggressive remarks and actions made by it will remain for the near future, given that such positions are what their people would expect out of them. Like the Chinese proverb says, 骑虎难下 – it is hard to stop riding the tiger; having embraced ethno-nationalism in its narrative, Beijing is now forced to continue its aggressive position.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.


Orson Tan is research fellow at the Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, and Ph.D. candidate in political science and international relations at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.



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