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In the months since the global COVID-19 pandemic began in Wuhan, China’s leaders have turned increasingly nationalistic. They have boasted to both domestic and foreign audiences about the superiority of China’s system when it comes to combating the disease. They have peddled conspiracy theories about the U.S. origins of the novel coronavirus. They have embraced “wolf warrior” diplomacy, brashly attacking foreign critics and using social media and other platforms to highlight foreign shortcomings.
Although the main objective of Beijing’s nationalist push has been to build domestic support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it has also stoked tensions with Washington, as each side tries to outdo the other in shifting blame and avoiding accountability for its handling of COVID-19. The tit-for-tat rhetoric has already accelerated a race to the bottom in U.S.-Chinese relations and hindered cooperation in fighting the pandemic. For the United States, this more nationalistic Chinese approach will present even greater challenges going forward, hindering U.S. leverage and deterrence in ways that will constrain U.S. policy options.
But over the long term, nationalism will prove even more of a hindrance to Beijing’s ambitions, since it undermines Chinese efforts to attract international support and show global leadership. Wolf warrior diplomacy might appease Chinese nationalists at home, but it will limit China’s appeal abroad. And xenophobia and repression in the name of national stability—whether toward African migrants in Guangzhou, Central Asian minorities in Xinjiang, or ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong—have given the lie to Chinese efforts to project a benevolent and magnanimous image. Even if Beijing recognizes these problems, it will be costly—although not impossible—for the Chinese leadership to constrain the nationalism it has unleashed.
To some extent, Beijing has already tempered its most aggressive nationalist rhetoric in the face of domestic and international pushback in recent weeks. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has denied that China is trying to export its coronavirus response model. Leading military hawks have cautioned Chinese nationalists against using force to reunify with Taiwan. Censors have shuttered social media accounts promoting “fabricated and misleading” claims about India, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam. But despite this modest tamping down of nationalist rhetoric, even China’s internal reporting suggests that global anti-Chinese sentiment is at its highest point since the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square.
Still, more assertive nationalism is likely to remain a feature of Beijing’s rhetoric and diplomacy, with significant implications for U.S. policy. The more the CCP prioritizes nationalism and public stability relative to economic growth as sources of domestic legitimacy, the less leverage the United States and other outside powers have, particularly on issues of central importance to China’s leaders, such as territorial integrity. Take Hong Kong, where Beijing has feared both democratic contagion and a separatist threat to national sovereignty. Threats of economic sanctions have been ineffective at deterring Beijing from pushing through new national security legislation that effectively ends Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Nationalism creates pressure for the government to talk tough and placate domestic audiences, increasing the costs of restraint.
The more an issue resonates with nationalist sensitivities among the Chinese public and elites, the more likely foreign threats and actions are to provoke rather than deter. To be sure, the CCP has substantial leeway to shape public opinion through its propaganda and education system, allowing Beijing to reduce the costs of compromise and restraint. But popular nationalism often provides the spark for international confrontation as Chinese netizens go global in their efforts to defend China, as last year’s National Basketball Association controversy showed when the Houston Rockets’ general manager tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protests. Once mobilized, nationalism creates pressure for the government to talk tough and placate domestic audiences, increasing the costs of restraint.
Understanding this dynamic inside China can help foreign governments parse the often mixed messages coming from Beijing. In some instances, the Chinese government’s aggressive rhetoric has outpaced its actual behavior. When tensions escalated with Japan in 2013, Beijing used fiery words and demanded that foreign aircraft identify themselves and comply with Chinese instructions when flying over the East China Sea; yet it avoided any real show of force. After a midair collision with an American spy plane in 2001, China defused the crisis by mourning the “martyred” pilot while preventing anti-American demonstrations, in contrast with the protests it encouraged after a NATO airstrike hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.
Yet nationalism still raises the costs of restraint. Allan Dafoe and I surveyed Chinese Internet users after the United States military restarted freedom-of-navigation patrols in the South China Sea in order to pick up the effect of these resumed maneuvers on public attitudes inside China, a quasi-natural experiment. In the days following the patrols, we found an increase in public disapproval of the Chinese government, which did not use force to intercede or harass U.S. patrols. These results suggest that although the Chinese government chose to exercise restraint in the moment, it did so at some domestic cost.
For U.S. deterrence efforts to succeed, accordingly, the Chinese government must be willing to absorb public opinion costs for not taking action in the face of U.S. “provocations.” It has been able to minimize the short-term costs of inaction through bluster, including rhetorical denunciations and pronouncements that Chinese efforts successfully drove the U.S. patrols away. But although this tactic may give Beijing short-term flexibility, it also risks tying the CCP’s hands in the long run, as repeatedly invoking historical grievances may bolster the public’s desire for future vindication.
U.S. policymakers aiming to shape the trajectory of China’s behavior and influence must consider both the short- and long-term effects of nationalism on Chinese politics and policy. Policies to force near-term Chinese restraint may also make medium- or long-term belligerence more likely by hardening the overall opinion climate inside China. As domestic disapproval costs mount in Beijing, the failure of American attempts at deterrence—such as stepped-up U.S. operations in the South China Sea or congressional efforts to mandate Hong Kong sanctions—may lead Washington to conclude that China has expansionist aims. But the Chinese leadership’s calculus may be driven more by domestic insecurity. As such, foreign governments should beware of counterproductive forms of international pressure. In crafting strategies to deter or punish Beijing, policymakers may end up increasing domestic Chinese demands for tough retaliation, including countermeasures against the range of foreign interests that benefit from access to China—whether scientific, journalistic, or corporate.
Foreign governments should beware of counterproductive forms of international pressure.
Ultimately, the CCP seeks security, regional dominance, and a global order that makes room for and reflects Chinese values and interests. But as I have written previously in these pages, it has not embarked on a messianic effort to remake other countries in China’s image. The more the CCP leans on nationalism, the less worried the United States should be about China as a rival for global leadership.
Already, around the world, Chinese efforts to proclaim superiority in combating the coronavirus have fueled suspicion and alarm—as well as demands for reparations, lawsuits, and calls for rethinking ties with China. Policymakers seeking a more effective strategy for both competing and cooperating with China should recognize the limits of China’s international appeal—as well as the dangers of the United States’ own nationalist fervor. Whether in China or in the United States, nationalism is more likely to repel than attract—whether it comes in the form of wolf warrior diplomacy or “America first” rhetoric.