In order to pressure his Chinese counterpart to cede ground, U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked Xi Jinping on everything from trade to Taiwan. However doing deals could even become harder as he risks a backlash.
Trump’s hectoring could stoke nationalism in a year where China’s leaders are already working hard to instill public pride and stress unity given the fact that China’s dominant state-run media seeks to burnish the image of the Communist Party.
Without appearing weak at home, raising the odds he retaliates, Xi would have less room to negotiate if Trump’s rhetorical blasts fan Chinese patriotism.
To bolster his standing as well as the party’s, Xi uses nationalism like prior presidents. Since coming to power Xi has stepped up assertions to territory in the South China Sea and has expanded the reach of China’s military.
“If the Chinese people perceive Xi Jinping to be bullied by Trump, they will expect a very strong response,” said Paul Haenle, a China adviser to former President George W. Bush and now director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “If it gets really bad, you could see nationalism kick in” like the anti-Japan protests of late 2012.
Chinese took to the streets in more than a dozen cities, smashing Japanese cars, tearing up Japanese flags and looting Japanese shops at the height of those frictions with Japan over the East China Sea, which occurred shortly before Xi’s elevation.
Taiwan and the South China Sea — areas that party leaders consider “core interests” that can’t be negotiated, are areas that can result in rise of China’s nationalists if Trump and his team rail against Beijing on those issues.
Any provocations carry added risk because he needs to project an image as a strong leader who won’t be cowed by U.S. policy that appears to be aimed at containing China as Xi prepares for a twice-a-decade party leadership reshuffle later this year.
At the same time, Xi needs to avoid letting nationalism get out of hand.
“Any nationalist protests would also probably put the government under fire,” said Zhu Feng, executive director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University. “It’s a double-edged sword. Nationalist sentiments could backfire vis-a-vis the government.”
Jessica Chen Weiss, author of “Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations” and an associate professor at Cornell University in New York state said Chinese authorities are perpetually worried that “bad elements” will take advantage of nationalist protests to cause trouble.
“One lesson of the 2012 anti-Japanese demonstrations is that mass protests may invite anti-government criticism on unrelated issues without necessarily convincing foreigners that the government faces nationalist pressure to take action,” she said.
A measured response to Trump has been taken so far by China. Pubic outcry has been avoided even as statements and editorials have strongly reiterated China’s stance on issues such as Taiwan and the South China Sea.
He wants to manage disputes, said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Tuesday. “We are willing, on the basis of strictly abiding by the One-China principle and respect of each other’s core interests, to have dialogue with the new U.S. government,” he said in comments on the ministry website.
Still, Xi may have little option but to respond if Trump accelerates his rhetoric, especially on “core” issues.
“It’s very costly for the Chinese leadership to keep grassroots nationalism in check,” said Chen Weiss. “If the Trump administration follows through with its casual rhetoric about abandoning the One-China policy, Xi Jinping may unleash popular nationalism to show resolve over Taiwan and rally the public.”
(Adapted from Bloomberg)