Nationalism, domestic politics, and China’s global leadership role

The future U.S. role in the Asia-Pacific and the potential challenge of China’s rise is hotly debated in both the policy and academic communities. Whether China is willing and able to take on a global leadership role in the economic, political and security realms is of particular interest. China’s leadership role has become a proxy for evaluating Chinese intentions—is China a status quo power, willing to accept U.S. leadership or a revisionist power, trying to undermine, replace or compete with U.S. leadership? China’s approach to global leadership has also served as an indicator of Chinese grand strategy —whether China will maintain narrow national interests that only extend into its region or contribute to the global order as a ‘responsible stakeholder.’

How should we understand China’s current global role and its ambitions? On the one hand, China’s increased global activism—establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, or Chinese base in Djibouti to support counter-piracy operations to name a few examples—has caused some to worry China hopes to unseat the United States and supplant the current international order with one better suited to Beijing’s needs.

Chinese military parade
Guests watch and take pictures as China’s People’s Liberation Army soldiers march with their weapons at Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, in Beijing September 3, 2015. Reuters

On the other hand, prominent voices call for an even greater role for China on the global stage, implying that China is currently not taking on the mantle of global leadership.If anything, commentators criticize China for shirking its leadership responsibility, in particular on North Korea and fighting ISIS. For its part Beijing has at times viewed the call for China to shoulder more international responsibilities “as part of an international conspiracy to thwart China’s development.”

But neither argument gives adequate attention to how Chinese domestic public opinion may shape the degree and nature of China’s leadership role. There are empirical and theoretical reasons to believe this may be an important factor to consider. First, Xi Jinping uses nationalism to boost his legitimacy, and this has taken on a definitively global tone through his ‘two guidances.’ This refers to Xi’s call for Beijing to “guide the international community to jointly build a more just and reasonably new world order,” and “guide the international community to jointly maintain international security.” Second, the Chinese government increasingly surveys the Chinese public on a wide array of topics in order to respond to (or manipulate) public concerns. Even authoritarian regimes have incentives to make policy concessions in accordance with public opinion because they can more efficiently govern when the people engage in “quasivoluntary compliance.” Lastly, research shows that domestic political factors, including nationalism, increasingly impact Chinese foreign policy decisions.

Below, I briefly address some pathways through which the expectations and demands of China’s domestic public may impact China’s future approach to leadership in the economic and security realms. The bottom line is that nationalism supports a greater global role for the prestige and enhanced ability to protect Chinese interests, and also creates limitations on the nature and degree of China’s global involvement.

China’s Economic Role

China is arguably the most forward leaning in its global role in the economic realm. China has created its own institutions to lead, such as the AIIB. China has also invested $40 billion to finance its OBOR initiative to create “the world’s largest platform for economic cooperation,” by improving transportation infrastructure along China’s global land and maritime trade routes. Furthermore, while the U.S. has abandoned Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations, China has also spearheaded the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade agreement that would include…

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