Why Was China’s Response to U.S. South China Sea Patrols So Mild?

Why Was China’s Response to U.S. South China Sea Patrols So Mild?

by Andrew Chubb

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Xi Jinping has cultivated a reputation as a strong leader running a hardline foreign policy, especially on China’s maritime disputes. But the United States’ highly publicized naval patrol near the disputed Spratly Islands in October tested his administration’s ability to handle public opinion on contentious foreign affairs issues.

The “freedom of navigation” (FoN) patrol by the USS Lassen was widely reported in the Chinese media, with widespread international media reporting on voices of nationalist outrage among China’s 600 million plus internet users. Evidently unmoved, Chinese authorities chose to respond through verbal protests. On October 28 a lone pensioner staged a protestoutside the U.S. embassy, but fears of a repeat of 2012’s large-scale anti-Japan nationalist demonstrations have proven unfounded.

Two factors contribute to the Chinese public’s relative lack of response. On the top-down side, state propaganda has downplayed the threat posed. On the bottom-up side, calm public response has reflected underappreciated pragmatic and rational tendencies within Chinese public opinion.

Top-down: Propaganda and the Party Line

The best place to begin assessing the CCP’s preferred agenda is the nightly 7:00 p.m. news bulletin from China Central Television (CCTV). Viewed by audiences of 100 million or more, these broadcasts are tightly scripted and dedicated to reporting top-level political activities. Reports on foreign affairs controversies are rare, so when they appear it offers a strong indication of how the party wants to frame an issue.

The message conveyed via CCTV on the day of the patrol labeled it “illegal” and a threat to “China’s sovereignty and securityinterests” (emphasis added). Even though the USS Lassen navigated within 12 nautical miles of a feature that could be entitled to a sovereign territorial sea, the report did not state that China’s sovereignty had been violated. Instead, the PRC decided to maintain strategic ambiguity on the issue.

Framing it as a threat to China’s sovereignty and security interests left Beijing well positioned to propound a narrative of diplomatic victory over a powerful adversary. The U.S. has indicated that its patrols in the area will be regular but quiet. Beijing may only need to give less publicity to future patrols to create an impression of the U.S. standing down.

Voices of moderation were out in force in China’s mainstream media, as Nhung Bui and Ma Tianjie both note in their own reviews of PRC media coverage of the issue. CASS’s Xue Li, who has argued for a clarification of the nine-dash line claim, even appeared on Shenzhen TV subtly endorsing the U.S. operation, saying it would help to make “China’s position on the South China Sea gradually become clearer.”

Most tellingly, the centrally-run Global Times, a normally hawkish tabloid, repeatedly reassured its audience that U.S. patrols were not a major threat, emphasizing this in no less than four of its editorials. This analysis, widely republished throughout China’s commercial media, illustrates one of the powerful levers the CCP retains over domestic coverage of foreign affairs. If the leadership perceived escalation to be likely, it could easily have amplified nationalist threat perception through channels like the Global Times, which in turn would spread popular outrage to a broader section of the population. In this case, however, Beijing was clearly more interested in ensuring the “public opinion foundations” for the ongoing stability of Sino-American relations.

Bottom-up: “Rational Patriotism”

The Chinese state’s intentions are far from the singular determinant of the public’s response to foreign policy controversies. In the Internet era, citizens can publicize their viewpoints directly through various social media platforms. The nature of social media ensures that extreme opinions tend to dominate moderate ones. But to equate frothing nationalism with overall Chinese public opinion is to overlook solid evidence for the wider public’s basic rationality. Thus, it is also worth considering bottom-up explanations for the quiet public response to coverage of the patrol.

In contrast to the consistently inflammatory rhetoric found on online platforms, face-to-face survey research suggests more pragmatic attitudes prevail among the public. In a 2013 survey of 1,413 randomly selected adults in five Chinese cities, military force was the second-least popular among 10 policy options for handling the disputes—well behind compromise and negotiation. Although one poll is not definitive, the result mirrors findings of numerous earlier surveys organized by Chinese and foreign groups. The generally calm response to the USS Lassen’s FoN patrol near Subi Reef, and the party-state’s decision not to escalate the situation, accords with this rational tendency.

The CCP’s “patriotic education” campaign may have made Chinese youth more inclined to view contemporary events through historical lenses, but this does not necessarily translate into militant or uncompromising views on foreign policy. In the same 2013 survey, young people were more inclined to link China’s current maritime disputes to narratives of historical humiliation by Western and Japanese imperialists. But they were also less likely to approve of the use of military force in the South and East China Seas, and more likely to express approval for compromise. This suggests a re-evaluation of the common idea, established in prominent earlier studies of Chinese nationalism, that China’s young people are an intensely militaristic and uncompromising generation. It also suggests skepticism is warranted when PRC officials claim that popular nationalism means they must pursue assertive actions on territorial disputes. Prevailing moderate views among the majority of China’s youth, who have often been at the forefront of nationalist mobilization, help explain why no nationalist protest wave has followed the U.S. patrol.

Finally, the last wave of anti-foreign mobilization to sweep China actually generated a popular backlash against nationalist excess. As Chris Cairns and Allen Carlson note in a forthcoming China Quarterly article, at the height of the fervor over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in 2012, moderate voices quickly rose to the top in the normally extremist-dominated online discourse. This suggests that, for the time being, when China’s party-state wishes to resist popular nationalist calls for a potentially disastrous confrontation over disputed offshore claims, it probably has the tacit support of a silent majority.

Image "US Navy 091117-N-1644H-327 The guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG 82) is underway in the Pacific Ocean" Courtesy U.S. Navy (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class John M. Hageman) / Public Domain

About the Author

Andrew Chubb is a PhD student at the University of Western Australia, researching the relationship between Chinese nationalism, public opinion and policy on maritime disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea. He blogs at South Sea Conversations and can be found on Twitter @zhubochubo .

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