IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

China’s insecure nationalism: The roots of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, participates in a welcome ceremony with his Chinese counterpart Gen. Fang Fenghui at the Ba Yi, Aug. 15, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

Written by Abanti Bhattacharya.

At the root of the present Doklam crisis is China’s intrusion into Bhutanese territory for its road building projects. These connectivity projects are integral to President Xi Jinping’s dream project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India and Bhutan were the only two countries that did not participate in the first forum on BRI held in Beijing in May this year.

While diplomacy remains the only viable channel to deal with the dragon, countries around the globe, particularly those who are affected by China’s growing irredentism – India, Japan, the United States, Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines – should all come together and create a united front

This has irked China deeply. In fact, following India’s abstention, there arose disquieting voices in the European Union about China’s intentions on BRI. Notably, Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China but it shares a special relationship with India that takes care of its security needs. However, taking advantage of the disputed border with Bhutan, China thought to go ahead with its BRI.

Apparently, the Chinese leadership had calculated that the road project would provide them the opportunity to coerce Bhutan into opening up diplomatic relations, and thereby, pulling Thimphu out from India’s orbit. Not to forget, for Bhutan, the greater threat is how to overcome the huge trade deficit with India and meet the economic crisis impending in the nation.

However, for China, BRI and the associated connectivity project is central to both its domestic and foreign policy. On closer observation, BRI has been conceived to resolve China’s problem of overcapacity in its domestic market. The connectivity projects overseas were found to be not only an ideal economic rationale to spread its economic tentacles beyond its periphery, but also offered Beijing a seamless opportunity to spread its political influence and global dominance.

But as soon as it embarked upon BRI, it confronted rising cries of deglobalisation in the West. This posed an alarming situation for China, when it needed more and more markets to prevent its domestic economic slowdown. No wonder, Xi vociferously advocated for globalisation in his Davos speech in January this year. And also indicated BRI was the lynchpin of the Chinese model of globalisation.

Politically, too, China is undergoing a huge internal churning. It is going to hold its crucial 19th party congress that will choose a new central committee and replacements for the core seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. For quite some time, Xi has been brutally consolidating his power by not only eliminating his potential rivals – the most recent being the case of Chongqing Communist Party leader Sun Zhengcai’s sudden purge on July 15 – but also by playing the nationalism card.

Nationalism is a critical element in legitimising Communist Party rule. Central to this nationalist thesis is the image of China as a victim country that lost its territory and lost its centrality in global politics to the forces of imperialism and colonialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Therefore, as soon as Xi came to power in 2012, he gave the slogan of ‘China Dream’ on November 29 at the National Museum’s ‘Road to Revival’ exhibition.

He said, “To realise the great renewal of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history.” Embedded in this China Dream is an unrelenting quest for retrieving ‘lost’ lands and attaining past greatness. But ironically, a deep sense of insecurity pervades this nationalist cry.

This insecurity emerges from the fact that legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party is contingent on economic development and prosperity. This economic prosperity, in turn, is dependent on globalisation. But the current trend of deglobalisation does not bode well for China, and particularly for its BRI.

Simply put, BRI has been envisaged to not only meet the demands of a slowing economy but to expand its global footprints and thereby, fulfil the China Dream. In other words, forces of nationalism and globalisation, which are otherwise antithetical to each other, are critically interlinked and are vital for China’s sustained rise.

Hence the road building projects in foreign territories, and here in the case of Bhutan as well, falls within this broad logic of China’s foreign and domestic interests. China’s insecure nationalism has thus engendered a belligerent turn to its foreign policy.

This heightened sense of insecurity is clearly discernible in the sabre rattling that the Chinese media and foreign policy establishment have indulged in on the Doklam issue. This insecurity had reached such a level that Chinese media had gone on to describe Ajit Doval, India’s national security adviser, as “the main schemer” of the Doklam stand-off. This reminds us of the term ‘splittist’ that China attaches to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Sieving through the reasons for China’s belligerence on the Doklam issue, it can be inferred that for Beijing BRI, associated with Chinese nationalism and the China Dream, is contingent on sustaining globalisation as well as one-party rule. Hence, it is well-nigh impossible for China to dismount the nationalism tiger.

In this context, the scope for resolution of territorial disputes is exceedingly limited. Therefore, while diplomacy remains the only viable channel to deal with the dragon, countries around the globe, particularly those who are affected by China’s growing irredentism – India, Japan, the United States, Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines – should all come together and create a united front opposing such irredentism and challenging China’s selective use of history for territorial claims.

Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. She tweets at @b_abantiThis article was originally published on the Times of India and the South Asia Monitor. Image credit: CC by Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff/Flickr.