Friday’s meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama is, per Reuters, taking place amid “simmering tensions” over “China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.” In an interview with Xi ahead of his visit to the United States, The Wall Street Journal noted that “China is playing an increasingly assertive role in regions around the world,” and asked where Chinese interests differed from those of the United States. (Xi preferred to characterize his as an “independent foreign policy of peace.”) These are just a couple examples from the past week, but all this talk of China’s assertiveness has been, well, increasing for years:
“How new and assertive is China’s new assertiveness?” That’s what Harvard’s Iain Johnston asked in the journal International Security upon noticing this trend two years ago. (The above graph borrows from Johnston’s methodology and tallies incidents of “China” and “assertive” or “assertiveness” appearing within the same phrase in U.S. publications.) For China to be newly assertive, it would not only have to be assertive, but more assertive than it used to be. Because the “new assertiveness” meme really took off between 2009 and 2010, Johnston set the benchmark date during that period and compared assertiveness—which he defined as “a form of assertive diplomacy that explicitly threatens to impose costs on another actor that are clearly higher than before”—before and after. “[I]f this discourse accurately reflected reality, one would expect there to have been a radical change in Chinese foreign policy” around late 2009, he observed.
Johnston’s conclusion: There wasn’t, for the most part. In particular, Chinese diplomats’ alleged assertiveness at the Copenhagen climate-change summit in December 2009—the starting point for a major acceleration in the use of the phrase—was fully in line with China’s positions on the issue dating back to the 1990s: in Johnston’s words, “no commitments on ceilings and timetables [for greenhouse-gas reductions] and resistance to strict verification of national performance.”
What had changed was the U.S. reaction to China’s longstanding positions. Johnston found a similar pattern in other domains of alleged Chinese assertiveness, including the country’s reaction to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and its defense of North Korean behavior. “Much of China’s diplomacy in 2010 fell within the range in foreign policy preferences, diplomatic rhetoric, and foreign policy behavior established in the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao eras,” he concluded.
There was an exception, though, and that was China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, which are in many cases contested by other countries in the region. Since Johnston’s article was published in 2013, there’s been another huge spike in discussion of Chinese assertiveness in U.S. publications, and it coincides with an artificial island-building spree in the South China Sea that kicked off in earnest in 2014. New satellite images released Friday showed that China had completed its first airstrip on one of the islands. (It’s worth noting that this brand of assertiveness is not exclusive to China: Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines have also built on the contested islands, though the scale and speed of China’s work in this area is unique.)
At the same time, Johnston’s 2013 conclusion that “one should be cautious about generalizing from these maritime disputes to Chinese foreign policy writ large” remains relevant. “[I]t is possible for a state to be newly assertive on some limited range of issues while leaving its other major policies unchanged,” he wrote. Or those policies might even change and become less assertive: The U.S.-China climate accord reached in November 2014, and Xi’s new commitments on cap-and-trade, are cases in point.
The nuance matters because clichés have consequences in the context of international rivalries, particularly where the stakes of misunderstanding are high. “How adversaries are described often reverberates in the domestic politics of both sides,” Johnston wrote. He continued:
The effect is often the narrowing of public discourse. As public discourse narrows and as conventional wisdoms become habituated, it becomes more difficult for other voices to challenge policy orthodoxies. … [T]he new assertiveness meme or others similar to it in the United States could, in the future, reduce the range of interpretations of Chinese foreign policy, potentially narrowing policy options available to decisionmakers.
In a speech in Seattle on Tuesday, Xi Jinping himself warned of the risks involved: “We should strictly base our judgment on facts, lest we become victims to hearsay, paranoid or self-imposed bias.” He denied the existence of the concept that Graham Allison explored in his latest essay for The Atlantic: a “Thucydides trap” that increases the likelihood of war when an established power such as the United States confronts a rising power such as China. But as Allison noted on Thursday, Xi also cautioned that “should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”