The “Assertive China” Narrative
© 2015 FrontLine Defence (Vol 12, No 2)

There is a growing discourse in American and Asian strategic circles declaring that Chinese foreign policy has altered in a fundamental way. After nearly two decades of abiding by Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum of “keeping a low profile and never take the lead”, it now appears that Chinese leaders are charting a new direction. The focus on the declaratory policy of Peaceful Development has eroded amidst a new lexicon emphasizing the international community’s need to respect and concede to their ‘core interests’ and their determination to establish a ‘new type of major power relations’. Such a foreign policy change is explained and encapsulated in an emerging “Assertive China” narrative that is becoming a dominant paradigm in strategic thinking in mainstream academia.


The emphasis on new terminology in official statements reveals this reconfiguration, as does a growing number of incidents that are indicative of a more obstructionist and abrasive attitude.

Many examples highlight this new posture, such as: increased employment of military and paramilitary patrols into contested waters and island chains in the South China Sea; threatening sanctions on U.S. companies involved in the 2010 arms sales to Taiwan; the unwillingness to condemn nor sanction North Korea for the sinking South Korean warship Cheonan or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island; and the imposition of an Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea.

Despite a growing consensus of the validity of the assertive characterization of Chinese foreign policy, there is a diverse body of casual explanations for the shift. Some see such a change as a deliberate strategy by Beijing’s leadership to alter the status-quo based on perceived favourable conditions; others argue domestic influences – principally the rise of nationalism and the augmenting power of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – are forcing government policy towards a more uncompromising stance on contested issues. However, the end result is being interpreted with more conformity: a more revisionist China is abandoning its decades-long status-quo orientation and moving down an increasingly uncompromising path to remake regional and international dynamics towards its interests, at the expense of regional neighbours and the United States.

Selective Use of Evidence
Despite the frequency of characterizing China as ‘assertive’, that narrative suffers from serious theoretical as well as methodological flaws – not the least of which is the lack of definition and associated criteria for determining what is meant by ‘assertive’. The term is interchangeably used with others such as abrasive, aggressive, obstructionist and revisionist. Are these terms really all the same, either in defining behaviour or the underlying or assumed casual mechanisms at work?

Determining when this shift began also necessitates determining when (usually 2008-2010 timeframe) China was less assertive. This is more often assumed than clearly articulated, and in tandem with a lack of definition, creates major issues for definitely declaring that a shift in Chinese foreign policy is underway.

Semantics aside, assertiveness is ­usually used to describe how China has imposed greater costs to other actors, which are clearly higher than previous unresolved disputes. This often increases the probability of misunderstandings and degrades the ability to de-escalate matters to previous levels. However, the empirical evidence often employed is without a rigid criteria of evaluation. Instead, an obvious selective mining from the historical record is used to justify the timelines and create a consistent and coherent narrative. The financial crises of 2009 is often pegged as the time within which the emergence of Chinese assertiveness both became government policy and shortly afterwards readily noticeable to outside observers.

Not discounting the examples employed as assertive per se, China has shown ‘assertive’ behaviour well before 2009 (especially with respect to ongoing territorial disputes) and in some cases significantly increased the risk of confrontation and conflict than contemporary cases over similar matters.
In 1996 China conducted live fire missile tests in a direct attempt to influence the Taiwanese general election; the Clinton administration responded by deploying two aircraft carriers to the region to neutralize Beijing’s coercion. In 1999, the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade led to a severe but temporary degradation of relations between Beijing and Washington including violent anti-American protests. In 2001, the collision of a Chinese fighter jet and an American P3 aircraft led to the crew being detained for over a week, the plane dismantled and never returned, and a serious freezing of military relations between the two.

China has not caused casualties in its South China Sea disputes since 2007 when five Vietnamese fisherman were injured in a clash with Chinese marine enforcement agencies. Tensions pertaining to ownership of the Senaku Islands and historical grievances concerning World War II resulted in almost five years of ceased summitry at a cabinet level between Beijing and Japan between 2001-2005.

The successful 2007 firing of a Chinese anti-satellite missile on an old satellite caused serious concern in the West as it had not been previously evident that China possessed such a capability let alone the determination to conduct such a risky but highly visible test. This list, while not exhaustive by any means, seriously degrades the timelines often employed in justifying the ‘assertive’ narrative.

Contested Causal Reasoning
When it comes to China’s foreign policy, let alone governmental decision-making writ large, we have a dearth of evidence and insight into the process and influencing factors due to the secretive nature of the Party apparatus, especially at its highest echelons.

On the surface, such pressures seem to influence the regime (one that has abandoned Maoist teachings and vested their legitimacy on economic development and nationalist revival), however, this is an authoritarian regime that has withstood, and largely directed, massive changes in society and the Party, transforming itself and the country in a very top-down fashion. No doubt strong nationalist sentiments are held by at least some of those in power, but the cyclical nature of relations between periods of estrangement and re-engagement with many of its most divisive partners such as Japan, Vietnam and the U.S. demonstrates a level of control and flexibility in this respect.

The PLA, with an active voice in the media and academia, have become important foreign policy actors whose influence is in part guiding Beijing towards a more assertive stance. It should be noted, however, that the PLA’s formal political roles within the Party-State have been degrading over the past two decades (with no PLA representative on the Politburo Standing Committee and only two seats on the 48 member Politburo).

Type54A destroyer Weifang (FFG 550) was commissioned in June 2013 as part of China’s North Sea fleet.

It is true that many retired and some active senior officers regularly promote a more aggressive orientation in the blogosphere and academic institutions, but it is not at all clear such discussions influence, let alone are reflective of, Chinese foreign policy decision making. In addition to defence issues, a host of other matters are increasingly authorized to be discussed and debated within these spheres. This may be a desire by the regime to create an environment for such ideas to be expressed but incubated against the formal processes of decision-making. Furthermore, such forums allow leaders to float ideas and/or allow alternative expressions against government policies without threatening or questioning the legitimacy of the regime. Interestingly, most PLA commentators are not operational commanders but seem to work in the propaganda departments.

The altering balance of power, and more importantly leaders’ favorable assessment of the relative balance tipping in China’s favour over the U.S., is the most often utilized explanation for the assertive turn. While many of the issues being contested have existed for decades – specifically unresolved territorial and maritime disputes in East Asia – Beijing’s actions since 2009 reflect a more confident state that is willing to flex its power to demonstrate its determination to complete these matters to their liking.

With a growing military capable of projecting power throughout their adjacent seas, Beijing is testing the resolve of not only its neighbours but of Washington’s commitment to defence treaty allies. Most analyses, even those skeptical of the ‘assertive China’ narrative, are largely in agreement that Beijing has taken a more hardline stance with South China and East China Sea disputes, and is willing to employ military assets in risky confrontations. Such behaviour may be justifiably critiqued as unnecessarily escalatory, but blaming Beijing entirely for disrupting the status-quo neglects the actions of others. For instance, Japan’s nationalizing of the Senaku islands in 2012 changed the status-quo and no doubt influenced Beijing’s determination to respond. Furthermore, the submission of maritime claims to the UN by Vietnam and the Philippines in 2009 in part motivated Beijing to submit its ill-defined 9 dash line claim. Many of China’s smaller neighbours feel an impetus to change the status-quo while there is still a sizable incongruence of power, specifically militarily, between China and the United States. Situations, therefore, seen as China unjustly bullying its smaller neighbours may be a far more complicated tale of its neighbours also trying to enact change in the immediate term.

Is There Anything New?
Has a distinct and holistic transformation of Chinese foreign policy taken place in the last half-decade? Questioning the assertive narrative does not, as a logical extension, assume China is a benign agent that is continuously being misunderstood by the international community. Throughout the post-Cold War era, China has periodically been ‘assertive’ in trying to influence ‘core interests’ towards a favourable conclusion. Neither the issues invoked in the assertive narrative nor the government’s positions are new; begging the question: Is there anything new in Chinese foreign policy?

To date, there has been no formal declaration of a ‘core interest’ status for the South China and East China Seas, but the increased determination to challenge other claimants regularly, and with the growing use of military and constabulary assets, is a development that places regional security at risk. China has claimed various sections of the South China Sea since 1951, but the recent introduction and promotion of the 9 dash line claims (encompassing the whole body of water) have caused confusion in the region and concern in Washington. Is China claiming the entire area as an Economic Exclusion Zone or that it is actually their territorial waters? If the latter, this would represent a major change in Chinese foreign policy, and would challenge the ability of regional neighbours and the U.S. from operating in one of the world’s most important trade routes. To date, however, China has been careful to parse its words on the subject, keeping its ultimate goals and aims ambiguous; this may be to inhibit the justification of a counter-balancing coalition forming against them, or simply that they have not yet determined their final objectives.

Another novel aspect of China’s recent behaviour, particularly between 2009 and 2010, was the simultaneous degradation of relations with virtually all of their neighbours. To ensure a unified regional strategic challenge does not develop, Chinese leaders have exhibited surgical assertiveness in some regional relations, while attempting to mend conflicts with others. The past five years have seen numerous instances of Beijing trying to bring relations to a less confrontational posture. These include the 2010 letter by then Chinese Vice-President Dai Bingguo reaffirming China’s official foreign policy as Peaceful Development, and the recent trilateral meeting of Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese foreign ministers. Positive developments in Sino-US relations, as well, are usually neglected in the assertive China narratives, however, they are important in exposing the dynamic, complicated and sometimes confusing relationship between the two – with the bilateral accord of reducing greenhouse gas emissions the latest example.

Chinese foreign engagements, with both regional neighbours and Washington, are largely defined by the cyclical nature of the relationships. With outstanding issues ever present, these relationships are characterized by periods of strategic co-operation/confrontation and engagement/estrangement.

Beyond Status-quo vs Revisionism
Is the assertive turn simply the operationalization of a well thought out revisionist challenge? After two decades of accepting American unipolarity due to their strategically weak and vulnerable position, have Chinese leaders decided the relative balance of power, while not equal, has shifted significantly in its favour to the degree that the time to act is now?

China maintains an internationally oriented foreign policy, engaged through many institutions, specifically the UN Security Council. It has not, however, assumed a leadership role, and while opposed to certain Western projects, has stood by and allowed Russia to become the face of strategic opposition to the West. China has a far more complex and interdependent relationship with the international system vice Moscow and, therefore, cannot be as obstructionist. China remains committed to the broad confines of international economic and political order, but wants changes to better reflect the multi-polar order emerging, and specifically its growing position within it. With respect to East Asia, however, China appears to be more overtly committed to limiting U.S. power and influence in the region in order to create a greater degree of freedom to achieve its own regional interests and to influence the surrounding environment.

122mm wheeled self-propelled howitzer.

The new military reality in East Asia is largely, but not exclusively, driven by China’s development of anti-access and area denial capabilities, which are designed to limit American military power projection in the region. China appears determined to eventually resolve ongoing territorial and maritime disputes to their benefit – such as Taiwan, border areas with India, and perhaps a small group of islands in the East and South China Sea.

China’s military power increasingly raises concerns among regional neighbours that are developing intra-regional defence networks and welcoming the US-declared ‘rebalance’ to the region. However, while the window is open, Beijing is positioning itself to build an economic order – with itself at the centre. The recent creation of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, and a declared $50 billion-funded Silk Road project are evidence of these pursuits, much to the ire of Washington.

Clearly, China is actively trying to alter the power dynamics of the region, but it is premature to talk of a revisionist challenge to US leadership. Within Asia, however, both China and the U.S. will have to accept that their ultimate aims are both incongruent and unachievable. China will not be able to completely dislodge U.S. power from the region, particularly since regional actors will want American’s involvement into the indefinite future, however, Washington will not be able to retain a position of primacy in East Asia. China is becoming more economically and politically powerful and influential despite new military strategies and defence partnerships against Beijing’s growing military power. Talk of China becoming a ‘responsible power’, and contributing to security of the global commons does not mean Washington is necessarily comfortable with the continued development of military power of Beijing. Would such a situation be more acceptable if it were directed towards protecting the global commons vice curtailing U.S. power and influence in East Asia? Or is the rapid growth of Chinese military power simply unacceptable to the U.S.?

China is not simply the next hegemonic competitor in the great power game of relative position in the global hierarchy, nor are analyses of a peaceful China accurate in explaining and predicting the contours of that nation’s rise. If we accept the former it marginalizes the purpose of policy to that of just restricting China’s rise. If one accepts the latter, this implies an acceptance of Chinese foreign policy slogans. Both positions are inaccurate. There is instead a dialectical relationship developing as China’s rise influences, and is influenced by, the wider international system in which it resides. Identity, interest formulation and achievement therefore, will most likely alter in this ever-changing environment. Chinese strategy should not be interpreted as solely in an implementation phase but rather constantly under construction based on continued experiences with the international environment and their position within it.

Talk of status-quo or revisionism as a zero-sum dichotomy is neither accurate nor helpful in unpacking the reconfigurations of power and identity that are emerging in the post-unipolar era. Instead, these very concepts, and the referent with which they are evaluated by – the international order – are altering in both meaning and usefulness.

The assertive China narrative overestimates and dramatizes changes in Chinese foreign policy, assumes this inevitably shift is due to domestic and/or structural factors, and neglects ways these can be altered, influenced or changed by both internal and external agents. With the altering geopolitical landscape complicating attempts to label China as either a status-quo or revisionist power, it is more important for China and the U.S. to reinvest in common institutions and develop a relationship of shared responsibilities towards regional and international issues. Without shared involvement, the relationship appears to be at an impasse – encompassed in disagreement over the meaning of President Xi’s coined “new type of major power relations”.

China appears to want to be treated as an equal before deeper levels of cooperation are developed, while Washington believes China must commit seriously to contributing to global security before further responsibility and power sharing is bestowed.

Despite this strategic uncertainty and augmenting competition across various fields, both leaderships realize the need to avoid fears associated with power transition analyses of rising and declining dominant powers becoming the overarching paradigm governing their relations. How their relationship will be transformed, and whether both states will be willing to accept such requirements, is still uncertain and contested.
Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic whose work focuses on Canadian foreign policy in Asia, Chinese naval developments, and the ongoing political transition in Myanmar. A regular contributor to the East Asia Forum, he can be reached at: [email protected]
© 2015 FrontLine Defence