How to approach China's rise is the "existential security question of the 21st century" for the United States, John Bolton said Sunday. President Trump's national security adviser went on to lambaste Beijing's aggression in the South China Sea. "Contrary to every pledge it's made before to engage in peaceful negotiation to resolve territorial claims, [China] is taking over these rocks and shoals and islands, building military bases on them," Bolton said. "It's completely unacceptable. It's why we continue to do freedom of navigation exercises and look at other ways to stop this effort in effect to create a new Chinese province."
Bolton is right that China's increasing military power will likely be the most consequential trend in global security in the 21st century. The Chinese government's defense buildup is real and ominous, concerning the United States and countries in East Asia. Last week, Beijing announced that it will increase its defense budget for 2019 by 7.5 percent to 1.19 trillion yuan, or about $177 billion—less than the increase of 8.1 percent for 2018, but still quite significant. The International Institute for Strategic Studies noted in a report published last year that, since 2014, "China has launched more submarines, warships, principal amphibious vessels, and auxiliaries than the total number of ships currently serving in the navies of Germany, India, Spain, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom." Moreover, over that same time period, "China has launched naval vessels with a total tonnage greater than the tonnages of the entire French, German, Indian, Italian, South Korean, Spanish, or Taiwanese navies."
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Amid such growth, the People's Republic has not been afraid to flex its maritime muscles. Most recently, just two days before Bolton's comments, a Vietnamese official said that a Chinese vessel rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat and capsized it in the South China Sea's contested Paracel Islands. Around the same time, Taiwan, facing China's growing assertiveness, requested a fleet of new fighter jets from the United States. The security environment in the western Pacific is tense, and unlikely to calm down anytime soon.
The events of the last week alone show that the Chinese government is increasingly emphasizing military power, striking a more hawkish tone. Indeed, in January, President Xi Jinping spoke of the need to reunify Taiwan with the Chinese mainland before adding, "We do not forsake the use of force." Despite China being an autocracy, Xi cares about winning public approval, as have Chinese leaders since Mao Zedong. "Winning or losing public support is an issue that concerns the [Communist Party of China's] survival or extinction," Xi told the Central Committee in 2013. Moreover, Chinese leaders often invoke the attitudes of the Chinese people when opposing foreign actions and conducting other forms of international relations. Critics may call such invocations insincere, but China's regime does live in fear of its own people. Why else would the government create a dystopian surveillance state? Evidently, the pulse of the Chinese people is an important factor to consider when studying China, even in matters of foreign and defense policy.
So how do the Chinese people view their government's foreign policy? Do they support Beijing's investments in the military? Are they more hawkish or dovish? Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor of government at Cornell University, explores these questions in a new and important article in the Journal of Contemporary China. The article, titled "How Hawkish Is the Chinese Public? Another Look at ‘Rising Nationalism' and Chinese Foreign Policy," finds that much of the Chinese public is quite hawkish—in fact, perhaps more so than its leaders. Weiss examines the results of five surveys to assess "mass, elite, and netizen [active internet user] beliefs about how and when the Chinese government should use force and invest in military strength, threat perceptions of the U.S. military presence and reconnaissance operations in East Asia, and attitudes toward conciliation and compromise in China's island disputes."
"Collectively, the five surveys indicate that Chinese attitudes are generally hawkish, with a majority of respondents endorsing greater reliance on military strength, supporting greater spending on national defense, approving of sending of troops to reclaim disputed islands in the East and South China Sea, and viewing the U.S. military presence and reconnaissance in East Asia as threatening," Weiss writes. Importantly, she also notes that the survey results "suggest that it is premature to conclude that Chinese youth are less ‘nationalistic' than their elders, at least in their foreign policy preferences." Some academics have previously refuted the notion that Chinese nationalism is rising, finding that younger Chinese are less nationalistic than their elders. Weiss's finding could have important implications: if the Chinese youth is indeed nationalistic and hawkish, then it is reasonable to predict that China's foreign policy will not become more benign anytime soon. Weiss observes "widespread support for a more muscular Chinese foreign policy, particularly among younger Chinese, netizens, and elites."
Weiss's article is full of useful insights that readers should further explore, but the main takeaway is that the Chinese public seems to support its government's increasing aggression abroad and heavy investments in defense spending. What are the implications for both Chinese and American foreign policy? First, it is unclear how much public opinion drives Beijing's decision making, but, at the very least, Chinese leaders can use supportive public opinion as a tool to avoid making certain concessions and compromises. Xi and others can tell their American counterparts that, until the Chinese public is persuaded to withdraw from certain islands in the western Pacific, for example, they cannot risk the strong backlash from their people.
Most importantly, as China's economic growth continues to slow and steadily worsens, and as its financial disruptions become more severe, Chinese leaders, concerned about staying in power, will likely turn abroad to quell their restive populations. Stoking nationalist sentiment at home through belligerence abroad—certainly in the South China Sea, perhaps elsewhere as well—is a powerful way to gin up otherwise waning domestic support. This path is obviously dangerous, paving the way for reckless and impulsive actions. Weiss's article suggests that perhaps, in such a scenario, the Chinese people would not just take the bait, but also radically support it, because they already endorse a more militaristic foreign policy. That does not bode well for future peace and stability in East Asia.
One should of course not read too much into any one article. More research is needed to further explore Chinese attitudes toward their government's foreign policy. But one thing is undeniable: Weiss's findings are quite troubling.