Here's What You Need to Remember: The overwhelming belief that the PLA would prevail in a conflict with the United States in the East or South China Seas could make it easier for Chinese leaders to gain support for aggressive policies.
The vast majority of Chinese citizens believe the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could seize islands in the East and South China Seas, even if the U.S. military were to intervene in the conflicts.
No less than 87 percent of respondents said that the Chinese military already possessed the capability to take back the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands from Japan, according to a public opinion poll several years back. When asked whether they still believed the PLA could achieve this objective if the U.S. intervened in the conflict, 74 percent said yes.
The numbers were much the same for the South China Sea. When asked whether they believed the PLA could militarily take back disputed islands in the South China Sea, 85.6 percent of respondents said that China’s military could achieve this objective. Even if the U.S. military intervened on behalf of the Southeast Asian nations, about 73 percent of respondents said they still believed the Chinese military would prevail.
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These were just some of the results of a recent survey published by Andrew Chubb and the Perth USAsia Centre (h/t ASPI’s The Strategist), entitled: “Exploring China’s ‘Maritime Consciousness’ Public Opinion on the South and East China Sea Disputes.” The poll, which was the first in what will be an annual poll on Chinese views of the island disputes, was based on phone interviews conducted with 1,413 adult residents of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Changsha and Chengdu.
Despite the confidence in their country’s military’s capabilities, a slight majority of respondents said they did not want to go to war over disputed islands in either the South or East China Seas. When asked whether it was in China’s national interest to use military force to take back the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers but Beijing also claims, 55.5 percent of respondents said that it was not. Just over 33 percent disagreed while the rest were unsure or didn’t answer.
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Fifty-four percent of respondents agreed that it was not in China’s interest to use military force to take back disputed islands in the South China Sea, compared to 33.5 percent who disagreed. The rest were unsure or did not answer.
The survey participants also didn’t rank the island disputes as particularly important compared with many domestic issues. When the pollsters presented participants with a list of nine issues and asked them to choose the five most important, around 51 percent of respondents selected “island issues with neighboring countries” as one of their choices. Corruption, rich-poor disparity, food and drug safety, moral issues and environmental pollution all ranked higher. Notably, however, the island disputes ranked considerably higher than reunification with Taiwan, which only 22 percent of respondents selected as among their top five issues.
The overwhelming belief that the PLA would prevail in a conflict with the United States in the East or South China Seas could make it easier for Chinese leaders to gain support for aggressive policies. At the same time, it could very well make Party leaders more weary of actually initiating a conflict, given the domestic repercussions for them if China is defeated.
Zachary Keck is the former managing editor of The National Interest.
This article originally appeared in 2019 and is being republished due to reader interest.