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Nationalism’s questionable influence in China’s responses to international incidents

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A view of Chinese flag flying at the Consulate General of the People's Republic of China, New York, United States, 27 July 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Anthony Behar).

In Brief

In recent years, there has been a prevalent discourse which suggests that nationalism has emerged as a key driving force behind China’s foreign policy, particularly in international incidents and crises. But China’s actions on the global stage exhibit a range of responses to nationalism in different incidents — at times embracing it and at other times adopting a more detached approach.


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Policymakers, academics and the general public lack a clear understanding of the role Chinese nationalism truly plays. Why and under what condition would the Chinese government choose to escalate as nationalists require in some state-to-state international incidents, but not in others?

When the Chinese government responds to international incidents, its primary concern lies in garnering public support while safeguarding national interests. Policy formulation is significantly influenced by legitimacy concerns, of which economic development and nationalism hold paramount importance.

When decisionmakers perceive nationalist sentiments are likely to bring political and social instability, external escalation measures will be taken to safeguard China’s interests and pacify domestic discontent.

For instance, during the Kosovo War in 1999, NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, resulting in the loss of 3 lives and injuring 27 individuals. In September 2012, despite repeated warnings from China’s leadership, the Japanese government ‘nationalised’ the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. In August 2022, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan despite China’s strong opposition. All three incidents damaged China’s national dignity and sovereignty and brought overwhelming nationalist sentiments to the fore — which prompted China to swiftly respond with robust escalating countermeasures.

These incidents caught global attention. But China did not escalate in many other cases. Of course, reacting without escalation does not mean ‘doing nothing’ externally, as appropriate countermeasures targeting the other country in international incidents are expected.

China’s priority in developing its economy explains its rationality and restraint in handling many contentious incidents. After the 1978 reforms, economic development has been the government’s central task. When diplomatic relations hold significant economic value, China strives to handle incidents smoothly to foster active cooperation.

During the 2001 Hainan aeroplane collision incident, China did not escalate, and resumed active dialogue with the United States once its demands were met. In the 2023 ‘balloon incident’, China again did not escalate against the United States, despite its strong opposition to the US military’s strike.

Even if a diplomatic relationship holds low economic value, escalation is not China’s first choice. Empirical evidence demonstrates that the government will assess whether the incident harms China’s core interests. If not, it will usually not excessively cater to nationalism. This is because such actions may lead to unnecessary disputes and negatively impact diplomatic relations.

Even if China’s core interests are harmed, reaching an agreement to resolve an issue becomes crucial. During the 2016 South China Sea arbitration case, China initially imposed diplomatic, military and economic sanctions on the Philippines. But China’s policies began to moderate after the new Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte visited China. During Duterte’s visit, China and the Philippines reached extensive and in-depth cooperation agreements under the consensus of shelving the arbitration, resulting in a significant turnaround in China–Philippines relations.

Canada and the United States’ arrest of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou in December 2018 was a critical case. During this incident, the Chinese public ‘rallied around the flag’, leading to increased public support for the government. China’s relatively restrained response to the United States can be attributed to the substantial economic value of the Chinese–US relationship.

The value of the Chinese–Canadian relationship was not as significant. Meng’s arrest was viewed as part of the West’s technological war against China, posing a threat to China’s core interests. When China and Canada failed to reach an agreement regarding Meng’s release, China took significant diplomatic and economic measures to escalate the situation. These actions exerted immense pressure on the Canadian government and eventually contributed to the agreement to release Meng and the detained ‘two Michaels’. This brought an end to this international incident, which lasted for more than 1000 days.

Contrary to assertions that suggest China blindly caters to nationalism, the reality is far more complex. Unless an international incident threatens political and social stability, China rarely resorts to escalation measures that cater to nationalism. This is because China emphasises the economic value of diplomatic relations and, when non-core interests are harmed, China usually refrains from escalating. China also seeks to resolve disputes through achieving agreements it supported.

The Chinese government responds to nationalism with pragmatic actions rather than widely perceived instrumentalist policies — and it is misleading to exaggerate the role of nationalism in China’s foreign policymaking.

Chenchao Lian is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. This article is based on his published research.

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