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Does Identity Politics Better Explain China's Embrace of Multilateralism?

In the recent literature on Chinese foreign policy, there are contending explanations about China’s embrace of multilateralism. Realist arguments emphasize the pressure of U.S. hegemonic power and assertive security posturing in East Asia as a catalyst for China’s shift to multilateralism, while constructivists look at the role of ASEAN way in socializing Chinese foreign policy elites into an alternative norm of regional ordering. On 3 May 2007, Dr. Xu Xin, a China and the World fellow, offered a different explanation about China’s embrace of multilateralism by looking at the interactive effects of both domestic and international politics on China’s security behavior. With an analytical focus on the politics of identity, he argued that a state has an incentive to maximize its legitimacy by striking an optimal balance between enhancing internal cohesion in terms of state-society relations and seeking external resonance in terms of its place in the international system; that is, under given historical circumstances, congruence in state identity patterns will maximize state legitimacy, whereas incongruence will either weaken its domestic political basis or strain its foreign relations, thus overall undermining its legitimacy and security. Empirically focusing on the Taiwan issue, Dr. Xu argued that China’s security behavior since the mid-1990s has been decisively driven by Beijing’s grave concern about the growing threat of Taiwan independence movement, which places the legitimacy of the CCP-led state at stake as it faces rising popular nationalism at home and growing concern about China's rise abroad. Beijing's main security objective, thus, is to prevent the Taiwan issue from both exploding – causing a war in the Taiwan Strait – and imploding – subverting its development-centered grand strategy, for either of these scenarios or a complication of both could consequently derail China’s modernization drive. Beijing’s conditional shift to multilateral institutions, premised on state sovereignty in general and the institutionalized norm of “One China” in particular, serves both a preemptive purpose of blocking Taiwan’s de jure independence and a reassuring purpose of controlling the externalities of Beijing’s use of coercion against Taiwan independence movement. (Xu Xin)