China's response to the US Asia-Pacific "rebalance" and its implications for Sino-US relations. Open Access
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The rise of nationalism and the proliferation of foreign policy actors in China has contributed to increasing levels of distrust between China and the Asia-Pacific region, and contributed to a significant decline in the stability of the US-China relationship. The overblown reaction from China's civil society to the US' strategic "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific, initiated in November 2011, demonstrates that Beijing's traditional foreign policy pragmatism is being threatened by hostile factions in China's society. This is further evidenced by China's provocative actions in the East China and South China Seas, which have led to heightened regional tensions. Calls for a more confrontational Chinese foreign policy among China's civil society have been exacerbated by a more diffuse foreign policy decisionmaking structure which Beijing now struggles to manage. While official rhetoric toward the rebalance has been characterized largely by restraint, the elites are being forced to cater to a nationalist civil society with greater freedom to pursue self-interested policies independent of central control. Crucially, however, caution and restraint remains essential for ongoing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) legitimacy. As a result, stability with the US and with its regional partners still forms the core of Beijing's policy. While China's rhetoric, and to some extents its actions, has become more forceful, a conflict on its periphery would pose enormous challenges which could overwhelm the Party and potentially cause internal implosion. In order to maintain CCP rule, Beijing may be forced to rein in overtly competitive elements within China, even if this comes at significant cost to its legitimacy.As a result, the ebb and flow of Chinese policy is likely to continue as the leadership struggles to accommodate new and divergent interests within its civil society. Beijing must take steps to restructure its poorly managed bureaucracy, particularly its maritime agencies, to ensure it can rein in competing interests which threaten its ability to preserve stability. For Xi Jinping, China's new leader, balancing China's nationalist factions against the continuing need for stability may define his tenure. It will also play a central role in stabilizing US-China relations, which are increasingly characterized by distrust.