Assessing public opinion’s influence on foreign policy: the case of China’s assertive maritime behavior - by CWP Alumni Andrew Chubb

Thursday, Mar 15, 2018

English-language analysis of Chinese foreign policy has often cited nation-alist public opinion as a key driver of Beijing’s recent assertive maritime conduct. Yet these important conjectures have not been systematically tested. How can we know whether public opinion has been driving an authoritarian state’s foreign policy? What are some cases in which concern about popular nationalism may have influenced Beijing’s behavior in dis-puted maritime spaces? To answer these questions, this article constructs a methodological framework for assessing the likely impact of public opinion on particular instances of state action. Applying this to five cases typical of China’s on-water policy in the South and East China Seas since 2007 indicates that popular nationalism has had little to do with China’s assertive turn on its maritime periphery.

English-language analysis has often cited (rising) nationalist public opinion as a key driver of
China’s assertive maritime conduct over the past decade. Speculation about the influence of
Chinese popular nationalism can be found across academic works, government reports, think
tank briefs, media commentary, and state officials’ remarks.1 So far, however, these conjectures
have not been systematically tested, especially in relation to the South China Sea dispute – an issue
on which policy preferences are believed to have hardened among the Mainland Chinese public in
recent years.2 This likely reflects the difficulty of linking public sentiments with decisions made in
the black box of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policymaking in the maritime domain. How can
we know whether nationalism was a driver of China’s behavior in disputes over remote islands and
ocean spaces? What are some cases in which concern for domestic opinion may have influenced

Chinese actions at sea? What are the implications for foreign policymaking in China and else-
where? This article addresses these questions by constructing a methodological framework for

assessing the impact of public opinion on specific instances of state behavior, and tracing five cases
that typify the assertive changes in China’s on-water conduct in the South and East China Seas
over the past decade.
As the following pages show, popular nationalism has certainly shaped Beijing’s information
strategies on sensitive maritime disputes, but plausible examples of bottom-up sentiments
driving on-water actions are much rarer than commonly assumed. In three of the five cases
examined, public opinion was demonstrably not a significant factor. In the other two cases, even
though background conditions strongly favored bottom-up nationalist influence on policy, it is
still far from certain that the party-state would have acted differently if public opinion been less
hawkish. Specifically, in the Scarborough Shoal standoff of April–May 2012, the cumulative
effect of several months of harsh online criticism, combined with the elevated elite political

tensions at the time, may have rendered a conciliatory handling of the incident politically toxic.
In the Sino-Japanese crisis over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands3 three months later, public

opinion may have influenced maritime policy via a feedback loop that began with the party-
state’s attempt to warn Japan against nationalization of the disputed islands by drawing public

attention towards the issue. When the island purchase went ahead in September, Beijing was left to respond to a public humiliation by Tokyo in full view of an agitated public. Yet, even in these two most-likely cases for popular nationalist influence, there are good reasons to doubt public opinion influenced Beijing’s real-world on-water conduct, and compelling alternative explana-tions are available. The article concludes with a discussion of some implications of these findings for foreign policymakers.

Andrew Chubb
To cite this article: Andrew Chubb (2018): Assessing public opinion’s influence on
foreign policy: the case of China’s assertive maritime behavior, Asian Security, DOI:
10.1080/14799855.2018.1437723
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/14799855.2018.1437723


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