What’s in a Story?: Chinese Narratives on Territorial Conflict in the Pacific

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 7

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with a visiting KMT leader. (Credit: Xinhua)

Last week, China finished hosting the 2015 Boao Forum and also participated with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members in the 13th round of talks on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Both were promoted in the Chinese press as symbols of China’s commitment to the region and to an emerging pan-Asian economic and security order, embracing peace while also according China appropriate weight as a “great power” (Xinhua, March 27, March 28). This year’s Boao theme, “Toward a Community of Common Destiny,” seems to perfectly capture Beijing’s vision for a 21st-century Asia closely entwined with China’s economic and political leadership (Tung Fang Jih Pao, March 29).

Yet China’s ongoing territorial conflicts in the East and South China Seas sound a discordant note in this otherwise harmonious symphony. Many in the United States see China’s engagements as part of a carefully-calibrated campaign of military and diplomatic maneuvering, an “incremental assertiveness” meant to divide the United States’ attention and acclimate neighbors toward accepting China’s rising power (The Diplomat, January 8). Yet in China, the dominant narrative insists that any conflict with regional neighbors is rooted in the United States’ interference—and particularly the “Rebalance to Asia,” which encourages confrontation rather than negotiation and suggests a covert intention to thwart China’s rise (China Daily, April 1).

Narratives like these can, of course, be cynically deployed to justify purely pragmatic goals, but their prevalence and resonance in the information space suggests they genuinely compel belief and inspire action—raising the potential for misunderstanding or miscalculation in a crisis. To provide greater fidelity on the narrative elements that shape the discourse on such conflict, a research team at the Bush School of Government and Public Service began examining the specific language, metaphors and imagery used inside of China to discuss these territorial disputes. This is the first of our reports.

What’s in a Narrative?

We define “narrative” as a story that individuals and groups use to explain their circumstances and to justify a strategy or course of action. Strategic narratives typically reference a shared historical experience and establish a causal logic that explains how to deal with similar challenges. Once internalized, this cognitive script serves as a “shortcut” for understanding conflict, and thus become a silent partner in the creation of strategy. Narratives become woven into formal declarations of policy, but are often left unexplained since they are considered “common sense.” Narratives are also key to group identity, and particularly coalition building—especially important in China, where important decisions are traditionally forged through elite consensus (China Leadership Monitor, 2008 and 2014).

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) core narrative—that the Party alone saved China from its “national humiliation,” and that it alone can deliver its rejuvenation—has survived severe challenges, but still requires periodic infusions of support to counter the rise of competing alternatives. We see this conducted through historical education, propaganda, memorials, dramatic re-enactment and—significantly—symbolic political and military conflicts that reinvigorate a sense of conspiracy and danger.

The Chinese are not simple consumers of such stories. Yet the CCP has demonstrated that in key areas, it still has the upper hand in shaping the narrative space and inoculating the population against “unpatriotic” concepts that threaten the Party’s agenda. [1] This is especially true in regards to territorial conflicts, where—unlike domestic issues such as corruption, pollution and cost-of-living—most Chinese derive their information (and their perspective) from government reporting rather than direct experience.

To identify narrative elements, our research team looked at a variety of sources including official press, regional dailies, military newspapers and websites, discussion boards, specialized journals, conferences, social media and television programs. We also looked for negative indications of censorship, using catalogs of Internet keyword blocks and Propaganda Department directives. From this, our team has begun to isolate patterns that indicate a dominant narrative and also suggest several lesser, but competing narratives.

China’s Metanarrative on Maritime Territorial Conflict

The overarching interpretation of China’s maritime territorial conflicts is that they represent the residual injustices of Western and Japanese imperialism and also a litmus test of China’s rejuvenation. China’s legal sovereignty over the territories ceded to foreign aggressors was established by the settlement of World War II—yet because of the United States’ interference, the influence of the Cold War and the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) limited ability to project power, territorial control had to be delayed. Thus, the government took a long-term approach and “shelved” disputes while China was weak—but China is not weak any longer, the narrative says, so the government should use its diplomatic, economic and military power to reclaim what rightfully belongs to China.

Implicit in this discussion is the idea that other countries will recognize China’s sovereignty only when forced to, and that diplomacy, law, treaties, historical evidence and international engagement are all simply tools to apply toward this goal. In Chinese historical memory, Western law and international coalitions were used post-facto to legitimize what was otherwise naked aggression. The implication is that since respect for China’s sovereignty is fundamentally a factor of national power, China must develop competency in the specialized battlegrounds of law, diplomacy and coalition building to contest other claimants. As PLA Deputy Chief of the General Staff Sun Jianguo stated recently, “‘No confrontation, no conflict’ does not mean ‘no struggle’… without the struggle the United States would still have no respect for China’s core interests” (Oriental Outlook, March 5).

When it comes to the application of military power, the discourse becomes more complex. The official narrative continually emphasizes China’s commitment to peaceful negotiation as a means of resolving territorial disputes, while at the same time justifying the development of military capability to defend China’s legitimate rights. Chinese elites have long acknowledged that a military conflict could threaten the regional stability that China’s new power is based on, yet there is a competing narrative that asks whether the government does not have an obligation to apply this power in the service of China’s interests. In the end, the nature of the conflict—and by extension, justification for the use of force—appears to depend critically on how the narrative characterizes China’s relationship with the other party.

Force as a Last Resort against “Flesh-and-Blood Brothers” in Taiwan

Of the three conflict areas we examined, Taiwan appears to be where the narrative is most unified and where the threat of military conflict now seems most remote. Having successfully weathered the turbulence of former President Chen Shui-bian’s administration (2000–2008), China’s “peaceful reunification” narrative has rebounded and been strengthened by the recent détente under current President Ma Ying-jeou. Yet, under the interpretation promoted by the Chinese government, Taiwan is not a territorial conflict at all—since this would imply the existence of two sovereign entities—but rather a matter of civilizational disunity. In a December 2008 speech, then-President Hu Jintao noted that “Although the mainland and Taiwan have not yet been reunited since 1949, the circumstances per se do not denote a state of partition of Chinese territory and sovereignty. Rather, it is merely a state of political antagonism…” (Taiwan Affairs Office, 2008). Thus Beijing’s rivals on the island are presented as “secessionist forces” seeking to disrupt a status quo unity, rather than preserving an autonomy already established. At times, however, the narrative appears conflicted: China’s February 2000 White Paper on the issue mentions “sovereignty” 35 times, and the phrase “safeguarding national sovereignty” appears again and again in official messaging (Taiwan Affairs Office, 2000; United Daily News, March 14).

Unlike with the other two conflicts, the government’s narrative emphasizes a personal and familial obligation to the people of Taiwan. “People on both sides of the Taiwan Strait share the same blood, language and roots. They are one family that cannot be separated,” said Miao Deyu, Spokesman for the Chinese Embassy to the United Kingdom in a 2014 letter to the Financial Times (Financial Times, October 17, 2014). The Taiwan people are characterized as “flesh-and-blood brothers,” and in terminology and metaphor Taiwan is consistently characterized as a family problem. “The national reunification we advocate is not merely unification in form, but more importantly, a spiritual connection between the two sides,” said current President Xi Jinping at a 2014 conference (Xinhua, September 26, 2014). Thus, at its core, the “one China” narrative is about preserving the familial identity that keeps China’s large and multiethnic population unified and the biggest threat is “desinification” that legitimizes the rejection of Chinese cultural identity. The self-perception of the people on Taiwan then becomes a critical marker to establish a causal logic about the potential for the use of military force. Provided that “peaceful reunification” is perceived as drawing the Taiwan population toward greater solidarity, patience is warranted and military conflict is to be avoided at almost all costs. Should Beijing’s perception shift toward the idea that patience gives Taiwan’s “non-Chinese” identity time to grow, then waiting becomes a strategic mistake and the use of force must be considered.

A Dangerous Tiger in the East China Sea

The dispute in the East China Sea is presented as a long struggle against an old enemy, a tiger that has not—and perhaps cannot—change its stripes, and that waits in the shadows to exploit any sign of Chinese weakness. Remembering the historical wrong of Japan’s 20th-century rise and conquest of the Chinese mainland, narratives on conflict in the East China Sea focus on Japan’s nature as a secretly unrepentant, military-nostalgic country that would again upset the natural balance of power in Asia if allowed. Having established the Diaoyu as “inherent territory since ancient times,” the islands become symbolic in a necessary struggle to confront Japan’s remilitarization. (Defense News [81.cn], January 13, 2015).

It is also, internally, a test of China’s courage: Having been poorly prepared to respond to Japanese aggression once, China’s leaders cannot be seen as acquiescing to Japanese intimidation. “Remembering history,” “remilitarization,” and “defending the motherland” are all themes frequently referenced in discussions on the issue (The Diplomat, August 2, 2013; China Daily, March 26, 2004). Yet at the same time, there is a warning about alienating the Japanese people. If the Japanese take a conciliatory path and recognize both China’s “great power” status and the severity of its past mistakes, there is room to negotiate. If not, China must be prepared to fight another war—not to recover control of rocks, but to preserve the security environment and prove the futility of Japan’s militaristic tendencies.

“Maritime Consciousness” in the South China Sea

The narratives surrounding the South China Sea are quite different. Unlike with the other two conflicts, the myriad Chinese claims to sovereignty are not grounded in any sort of pervasive memory or historical consciousness—and this is seen as a problem. Commentators emphasize that for China to become a “maritime nation,” China must create institutions, maps, education and imagery to enhance a dangerous lack of “maritime consciousness” over “blue national soil” (Chinese State Oceanic Administration, June 9, 2014). Ultimately, these small disputes appear to be seen as a litmus test for China’s centrality in the region, a way of slowly reestablishing the proper power dynamic between a resurgent China and smaller nations along the periphery.

All narratives emphasize that China genuinely wants peaceful, mutually-beneficial relations in Southeast Asia—but implicitly, this is founded on a China-centered hierarchy, and a willingness by the Chinese government to use “sufficient toughness” where necessary. If the United States insists on injecting itself into these conflicts, the use of force is still to be avoided, but a combination of diplomatic, military and public pressure can be used to remind it that it is overstretched and that these disputes lie outside its core national interests. [2] Demonstrations of force may be warranted to compel direct, bilateral talks on China’s terms—but must still be controlled to avoid damaging China’s image in the region.


As China’s growth continues to shift the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific, it will become increasingly important to understand how the attitudes of China’s decision-making elite are influenced by culturally-specific interpretations of the past. While it will require considerable attention to avoid having “narratives” turn into “clichés”, insightful characterization of the debates within China may grant some additional insight into Chinese decision-makers’ worldview and empower negotiation with China and other regional actors to forestall future conflicts.


  1. David Shambaugh, China’s Propaganda System: Institutions, Processes, and Efficacy (2007); Anne-Marie Brady, Guiding Hand: The Role of the CCP Central Propaganda Department in the Current Era (2006); Wang Zheng, Never Forget National Humiliation: Historic Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations (2012); Lei Zhang, The Google-China Dispute: The Chinese National Narrative and Rhetorical Legitimation of the Chinese Communist Party (2013).
  2. See Andrew Chubb, Exploring China’s “Maritime Consciousness”: Public Opinion on the South and East China Sea Disputes (2015).