Do China’s nationalistic policies jeopardise its aspiration to be a world leader?

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Andy Tay Kah Ping's picture

The motivation for this article stems from the rise in nationalistic policies in the Asia-Pacific regions.

Do China’s nationalistic policies jeopardise its aspiration to be a world leader?

As the current world second largest economy, China is poised to become a superpower in the next decade. It has extended its influence not only through forging better political relations with the Western powers but also with rouge nations such as North Korea and Iran by refusing to take a firm stand against the latter’s reckless disregard for human rights and justice. Economically, China is the world manufacturing hub and ‘Made in China’ label is printed on virtually all items, ranging from a Zara’s tee-shirt to Apple’s semiconductors. Culturally, the Han language is now one of the most valued languages to learn. While China has made better political and economic allies in the past decade, its foreign policies especially with the neighbouring countries in the Asia-Pacific region lately, introduce confusion as to whether it remains steadfast to its aspiration to become a world leader. China’s recent policies within the country and in the Asia-Pacific region are highly nationalistic and to many, such stance jeopardises its track to become a superpower. However, I would argue otherwise and would illustrate the necessity in creating a strong sense of nationalism in China, and why nationalism is a clever strategy.

Becoming a superpower requires the backing of countries and nationalistic policies discourage neighbouring countries from supporting China. China’s assertiveness in the sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas have led to civil uproars in countries. Hundreds of Vietnamese recently staged a demonstration in Hanoi against the Chinese’s increasingly busy activities in the resource-rich Spratly and Paracel Islands1. In addition, China and Japan naval vessels have faced several stand-offs due to their respective claims on the Diaoyu and Senkakus Islands. Arguably, China’s nationalistic policies might have even contributed to the victory of Liberal Democrats in Japan2 and the election of Park Guen-Hye3 as the President of South Korea who both advocate national defence spending. The current tension in the Asia-Pacific regions certainly does not bode well for a country which needs support in its track to becoming a world leader.

China’s nationalistic policies might have also given birth to greater alliance between the United States and its surrounding nations. The Asia-centric foreign policies of Mr Obama and his visits to rising Asian stars such as Indonesia and Myanmar4 might hint that China’s nationalistic foreign policies have been too extreme that even its traditional economic partner such as Myanmar is looking to diversify its political and economic ties. China’s military superiority as seen in its increasing funds for military developments and more powerful aircrafts and submarines certainly pose a threat to its neighbouring nations. The most logical policy for these militarily inferior countries is thus to form defence alliances to prevent China, from turning into a tyrant.

Lastly, China’s nationalistic policies have also fuelled civil protests in Hong Kong and Tibet, where large percentage of the citizens in these places do not see themselves as part of Great China. In Hong Kong, parents, students and educators marched the streets to protest against China’s propagandistic content in textbooks. Citizens criticised China’s attempt as a ploy to brainwash the brains of the elementary students5. In Tibet, self-immolation incidents are no longer uncommon and more than 100 individuals have sacrificed their lives since 2009 using this means to fight for Tibet’s independence6. Therefore China’s nationalistic policies might have created divides in the country which can foil its plans to becoming a world power.

In these various aspects, it appears that China’s nationalistic policies might be a mistake as they alienate China from traditional supporters such as Vietnam and Myanmar, encourage defence alliances amongst its neighbouring countries and fuel more civil unhappiness within the country. However, I argue that China’s move is necessary as it confronts political transition and national pride is a powerful tool to unify the divided classes. In addition, China needs its nationalistic policies to claim the resources on the islands to feed its voracious economic appetite.

Nationalistic policies are essential for China to create a common identity amongst its people and to divert attention from the party’s mismanagement. Although China’s overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has risen in the last decade, the distribution of wealth has been disproportionate and there exist much unhappiness at the grassroots7. Furthermore, the wealthier and more educated middle class are demanding greater transparency in the management of their country such as over the case of melamine-contaminated milk8 and the assets of their party’s leaders9. At the top management, China is also undergoing a period of political transition as Hu passes on the role of President to Xi and the party members face uncertainty in leadership styles. With these internal problems, uniting the nation is a national priority and the easiest way has always been to boost national pride. Such strategy has been used successfully by countries such as Germany10 and Japan11 during the World War, and undoubtedly nationalistic policies have proven effective in recent elections in Japan and South Korea, demonstrating their potencies2,3.

It is also important to understand that besides the potential effectiveness of nationalistic policies in social control, China’s sovereignty claims are also economically logical. Although China has diversified its economic arms to the Middle Eastern and African12 countries, there is no guarantee that these countries would always embrace China as countries might not want to become over-reliant on China and become China’s puppets. The political and social instability as seen during the Arab uprising, which China could not control, also meant that China’s economic activities could be adversely affected if it is too dependent on other countries for resources. Also, as Western powers change its engagement policies with the Middle Eastern and African countries by offering ‘carrots’ that are less conditional through international bodies such as the World Health Organisation, China is also worried that it may lose these strategic partners. Therefore, the most promising way for China to propel its economic engine is to possess rightful ownership on rare and economically-essential resources. Unfortunately, many countries including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan want a stake on the resources in the potentially hydrocarbon-rich Spratly and Diaoyu Islands. China’s current military superiority gives it an upper hand over its neighbouring countries if a war ever happens. This is because while the United States has offered help to allies such as Japan, the proximity of the war, familiarity of the region and economic stake of a war are definitely in the favour of China. China’s nationalistic policies might be a gamble but albeit a cleverly calculated one as the economic benefits of having more resources may outweigh the cost of regional tension.

Lastly, powerful superpowers need to display strong assertiveness and by unrelenting in its sovereignty claims on the islands and its nationalistic policies, China can let the world know that it would not be manipulated and coerced into submission. Hitler was uncompromising in its claims on the Eastern European countries and to appease him, Western powers gave way13. China might be learning from such notorious examples from history. Furthermore, although Japan was the world second largest economy for a long time, it had weak political presence in the world stage and was often seen as the puppet of the United. China would want and can avoid similar situation because unlike Japan, it is not guilty for starting a war and does not have to rely on foreign military protection. Therefore, nationalistic policies in China do make political sense if China wants to send the correct signals to the world that it wants to be respected and be able to make its own decision.

In conclusion, while China’s nationalistic policies might seem divergent from its plan to become a superpower, they are politically, economically and socially relevant and necessary. History has taught us that national pride is a highly effective way to unify a divided country. Having unrelenting claims on resource-rich islands offers China an avenue to reduce its reliance on other countries for resources, making it less vulnerable. In addition, China is aware that to become a world leader, it must avoid becoming a puppet and has to show its teeth occasionally. Therefore, China’s nationalistic policies are definitely consistent with its ambition to become a world leader. Unfortunately, its stance has spun off nationalism that threatens regional peace. This is undoubtedly adversity accompanying weakened economic trades and rising tension from military build-up in the Asia-Pacific region. Hence it is important for China to understand that nationalistic policies do not necessitate sacrificing its relations with its neighbouring countries. It may thus be worthwhile for China’s political leaders to revisit the goal of ‘He’ (harmony) in Confucian teachings to avoid hypocrisy.


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2. Inoue, M. (2012, December 16). The New York Times. Retrieved March 2013,

3, from Asia Pacific: 3. Yoo, A. (2012, December 27). TIME. Retrieved March 2, 2013, from World:

4. Hunt, K., & al., e. (2012, November 19). CNN. Retrieved March 5, 2013, from Politics:

5. Evans, R. (2012, July 30). Bloomberg. Retrieved March 4, 2013, from News:

6. Banyan. (2012, December 9). The Economist. Retrieved March 5, 2013, from Analects:

7. ZW, Z. (2006). Income Inequality, Unequal Health Care Access, and Mortality in China. Population and Development Review, 32(3): 461–483.

8. BBC. (2010, July 10). BBC. Retrieved March 6, 2013, from Asia Pacific:

9. Flannery, R. (2012, October 26). Forbes. Retrieved March 6, 2013, from New Posts:

10. Vogt, S. (2012, July 11). The First World War, German Nationalism, and the Transformation of German Zionism. Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook, doi:10.1093/leobaeck/ybs005.

11. Varma, L. (2007). Japanese Nationalism: Response to Changing Regional and International Environment. China Report, 43:57-68.

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I was recently reading the account of a Japanese chef who served under the Kim Jong-Il government.He observed that the Supreme Leader lived in absolute luxury-ornate palaces,indulgent cars and lavish parties.While he was employed by the family,he was completely unaware of the pathetic economic condition of the majority of the citizens.Such a society with such varied economic conditions is bound to be an unsustainable one.Hence the defections and the continuing cycle of poverty in the nation due to reluctant workers.

Hi Abhsihek,

do you mind sending me the links of the Japanese chief you were talking about? Personally, I havent been to N.K and I would love to go there if I have a chance but I doubt I would have a chance to visit the adorned palace.

But from what I saw on some tourism channels, N.K capital is sort of like a model city as the government wants to project the image that everything is in order. Plus if the Japanese chief works only in the capital and the palace and his only source of information about N.K. is from the twisted press, there might be a possibility that his knowledge is limited. There is a TED video on a girl who escaped from N.K when she was little and she spoke about not having knowledge about hunger and poverty too before the famine came.

While the probability that the Japanese chief is ignorant of the state of penury of the N.Koreans outside of Pyongyang, I feel that it might be low at this age especially when air travel is accessible and the internet has a large source of information. A long as he has the chance to go out of N.K., I am sure he can receive this information if he bothered to check.