Relations between mainland China and Taipei are heating up, even as a conflict would be disastrous to all involved. What motivates China’s actions? Emotions are offered as meaningful categories of analysis, with shame and pride shaping China’s posture toward national reunification.
In recent weeks, and more than ever in recent memory, relations between mainland China and Taipei have been heating up.
New signs of the slide toward confrontation appear day by day. The revelation by the US Department of Defense of the the deployment of dozens of troops to the island. The approval by the Biden administration of US$750 million worth of weapons sales. A record number of flights by Chinese military planes to areas close to Taiwan. These and other developments seem to mark the steady drumbeat towards war.
What is especially confounding about the present situation is that the parts involved are so assuredly walking the path toward conflict even in the face of a wide consensus that a war in the Taiwan Strait “would be a devastating tragedy for all involved” (Porter & Mazarr, 2021).
What motivates China’s fierce posture toward the national reunification issue, regardless of cost?
The more rationalist paradigms in IR theory would posit that a rising China is moves principally by material interests. Completing reunification, or at least dissuading the US from becoming too close to the island, might reduce vulnerabilities, while further cementing its capacity to assume a role as regional hegemon (Jung & Lee, 2017). These paradigms, however, seem to fall short in explaining why China would risk so much to gain so little.
Rather than view the issue solely from a rationalist lens, a study of the issue from a constructivist lens appears to offer more complete explanations. Specifically, a cultural studies approach centered on the role of emotion in shaping identity provides the most interesting reasoning for China’s actions.
Pace and Bilgic (2018) say that “[e]motions are understood as performances, through which an actor expresses itself to others while constructing its identity”. These emotions are given sense in discourse, particularly as states develop narratives about themselves which infuses them with meaning and a sense of common purpose.
Presently, the guiding narrative of China is that of the Chinese Dream of achieving national rejuvenation. The narrative tells a story of a civilization that was once great, fell into darkness during the century of humiliation, and has steadily returned to greatness under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, with aims of becoming a “great modern socialist country” by 2049.
When applied to the issue of Taiwan, this narrative evokes two key emotions. On the one hand, Taiwan brings about a sense of shame. This happens as the island represents the country’s incomplete mission of reconstructing the nation.
That this is the case is best exemplified in a recent speech given by president Xi Jinping. In his speech, Xi, quoting Sun Yat-sen, says that “‘Unification is the hope of all Chinese people. If China can be unified, all Chinese will enjoy a happy life; if it cannot, all will suffer.’ The Taiwan question arose out of the weakness and chaos of our nation” (Qiushi, 2021). The choice of words is meaningful in at least two ways: one, by pointing out that China’s shame cannot pass until the mission of reunification is completed; two, by suggesting that even the powerful China of today is in a constant state of peril until it resolves the issue of Taiwan, with recent US actions reinforcing this idea. No wonder then that China is so willing to put so much at stake.
On the other hand, as the narrative evokes a sense of shame, it also brings about a sense of pride. Shi and Liu (2019) say that this emotion is one that has only recently come to the fore as a reemergent China finds greater confidence in itself and seeks to project itself with greater vigor. Seen from this point of view, China should not only act on Taiwan out of a sense of shame of the past, but also out of a sense of confidence in its future. To return to Xi’s speech, “No one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend our national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The complete reunification of our country will be and can be realized” (Qiushi, 2021). Rather, then, that see the potential costs of a devastating conflict that involves the US, a prideful China sees a sense of destiny that needs to be fulfilled.
Interpreting China through the lens of emotion tells us then of a complex state that acts out of more than mere material logic. Informed by the narrative of the Chinese Dream, the China of today is one that is steadfast in defending its claim to Taiwan, with only passing consideration given to potential costs. The US and others are called on to act with caution, lest they convince themselves that a simple material logic will keep China from the brink. The same can be said for their actions, which are likely guided by their own structures of emotion.
*David Castrillón. Es docente-investigador del Centro de Investigaciones y Proyectos Especiales (CIPE) de la Universidad Externado de Colombia, donde investiga y publica sobre las implicaciones globales de la política doméstica y exterior de China y Estados Unidos. Actualmente, está realizando su doctorado en estudios políticos sobre la influencia de la memoria histórica en el cambio de política exterior de China a partir del 2012. Correo: firstname.lastname@example.org.
El contenido de este artículo es de responsabilidad exclusiva de su autor y no compromete la postura de SG-FLACSO.
Jung, S.C. and Lee, K. (2017). The offensive realists are not wrong: China's growth and aggression, 1976–2001. Pacific Focus, 32(1), 86-108. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/pafo.12088
Pace, M. and Bilgic, A. (2018). Trauma, emotions, and memory in world politics: the case of the European Union’s foreign policy in the Middle East conflict. Political Psychology, 39(3), 503-517.
Porter, P. and Mazarr, M. (2021). Countering China’s adventurism over Taiwan: a third way. Lowy Institute. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/countering-china-s-adventurism-over-taiwan-third-way
Qiushi. (2021). Xi Jinping: Speech at a meeting marking the 110th anniversary of the Revolution of 1911. Qiushi. http://en.qstheory.cn/2021-10/10/c_666505.htm
Shi W. and Liu, S.D. (2019). Pride as a structure of feeling: Wolf Warrior II and the national subject of the Chinese Dream. Chinese Journal of Communication 13(3), 329-343. https://doi.org/10.1080/17544750.2019.1635509