Book Project

The Politics of Nationalist Protests: A Formal Approach

Workers putting up a national flag in the Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam.

My current book project, which grows out of my dissertation, uses a comparative and interdisciplinary approach to study nationalism on both descriptive and causal fronts: Is nationalism really rising? Under what conditions can nationalist protests affect international bargaining?

There are two common narratives on nationalism and international disputes among scholars of international relations. The first is that nationalism is upwelling in East and Southeast Asia, especially in countries with contested maritime claims such as China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The second is that nationalist protests can signal something to foreign observers. I challenge these two narratives on both descriptive and causal fronts. I argue that the meme of rising nationalism is populated because nationalism is often measured ex post in the immediate aftermath of a nationalist trigger, and we lack understanding in both ex ante baseline level and the attitude-action gap. Moreover, it’s not clear from existing work what is uncertain and how the protests and the government’s response can credibly send information to a foreign state.

To address these issues, I first applied machine learning methods to social media data in China, Vietnam, and the Philippines to derive a baseline level of nationalism in these countries. To clarify the scope conditions, I formally modeled the effect of nationalist domestic protest on the ability of states to credibly signal resolve and capacity in crisis bargaining. By focusing on the asymmetric information prevalent in nationalist protests and international crises, the model uses the logic of rational updating to clarify that not all types of costs or uncertainty can help make a signal credible. It further demonstrates a sweet spot in which middling uncertainty supports separating behavior such that the state's action can signal strength to the observant foreign government. To contextualize these findings, I conducted extensive field research in China, Vietnam, and the Philippines, where I interviewed protestors, think tanks, government officials, and foreign business owners that were impacted by nationalist protests.

This project thus provides a wealth of new data and analysis of East Asian security informed by local knowledge. It challenges the pervasive assumption of “rising nationalism,” a key assumption that has inflated the perceived risk of regional conflicts especially driven by the rise of China. Methodologically, it incorporates micro-level analysis of the rich social media data with formal methods, and enhances comparative perspectives on nationalism based on the explicit comparison of China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.