Is China Really That Assertive?

More specifically, is their foreign policy “increasingly assertive,” as an increasingly anxious U.S. media increasingly claims? I wondered about this recently, given the dramatic jump in the China-assertiveness cliches in American publications since 2009, as measured by a LexisNexis search for “China” and “assertive” or “assertiveness” within three words of each other:



My piece focused on the research of Harvard’s Iain Johnston, who found that China’s assertiveness had been pretty stable before 2009, with the key exception of its activities in the South China Sea. But he wrote that paper two years ago.

Nicholas Reinhold, a graduate student at Columbia focusing on East Asia, responds to my piece via email (links added by me):

The article does not mention major military developments that clearly indicate an increasingly assertive China that is willing to assume more risk of a confrontation with neighboring countries.

Over the last 10-15 years, China’s defense budget has increased several fold, bringing many new modern capabilities. Since 2006 China has increased the frequency and scope of naval patrols every year, incorporating their first aircraft carrier in recent years. The 2010 incident between China and Japan at the Senkaku Islands prompted China to start conducting regular civil maritime patrols at the islands, increasing the risk of another incident with Japan. In 2012, China asserted its presence at Scarborough Shoal after a dispute with the Philippines. Later in 2012, China dramatically increased patrols at the Senkaku Islands with civil maritime vessels and incorporated incursions into the contiguous zone and territorial waters of the islands. 2013 saw the consolidation of China’s civil maritime fleets in the China Coast Guard, the establishment of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, and the introduction of their first aircraft carrier into the fleet.

This activity is factual, but it could be seen as China merely catching up to the capabilities present in other countries in the region. Regardless, the activity does present a much more militarily confident and assertive China.

China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea are not necessarily a dramatic departure from policy, if one takes a long view of Chinese activity there as opportunistic. In the mid 1970s, China forcefully expelled Vietnam from the Paracel Islands during a violent conflict that was certainly more assertive than land reclamation. In the 1990s, the Philippines were forced out of Mischief Reef.

In these and other instances, China took the opportunity to assert itself and increase its presence in the South China Sea. Now that China has the capability and capacity to reclaim land at the islands, it should not necessarily be surprising that they would do so.

Johnston’s article in 2013 asked, “How New and Assertive is China’s New Assertiveness?” So how would he answer that question in 2015? His response is below (and for media critics, I’d highlight point #4 in particular—that without a rigorous measure of “assertiveness” the discussion “becomes one of dueling anecdotes”):

1. As I noted in my International Security article, China’s coercive diplomacy in the South China Seas meets my definition of assertiveness. The building up of artificial islands is obviously new, and the militarization of the islands will give China the ability to impose more costs on other countries should frictions break into actual clashes or crises. Imposing more costs on other claimants for the same kind of behavior is consistent with my definition of assertive. So, yes, they are putting in place the capabilities to act even more assertively on maritime disputes should they choose to.

2. I think one could argue that when it comes to cyber and in particular cyber-related commercial espionage China’s challenge to US interests meets my definition of assertiveness. But it also seems to be the case that cyber commercial espionage is a behavioral ‘norm’ for many states — China, Russia, France, Israel among others. In fact, US officials often claim that the US is alone among major economies in not engaging in commercial espionage. But this means, basically, they are acknowledging that US interest/policy is not the norm. This is why ‘naming and shaming’  China doesn’t seem to work in this area.

3. Some pundits/commentary claim that, in addition to maritime disputes, China’s effort to build new institutions like the AIIB [the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank] or the BRIC’s version of the IMF (the Contingent Reserve Arrangement) are examples of a new assertiveness because these allegedly challenge the US-dominated post-war economic order and Bretton Woods institutions like the World Bank and IMF. I think most experts on these institutions, people who have read, for instance, the conditionality for lending in the BRICs’ CRA, conclude that these institutions don’t fall outside of the boundaries of Bretton Woods’ standards. The CRA basically requires IMF conditions to cover 70% of borrowing from the fund. In fact, according to Peter Volberding, a PhD student here at Harvard, by far China’s largest lender is the China Development Bank and its ideas about conditionality are heavily influenced by the German development bank. This is not exactly evidence of a fundamental challenge to global capitalism.

4. Whether or not China is becoming more assertive across more issue areas — political, social, trade, monetary, military, or environmental orders — is an empirical question. But anyone who claims that there has been a spread and/or intensification of assertiveness across Chinese foreign policy writ large should a) provide a definition of the term, b) develop reasonably rigorous indicators of such assertiveness, and then c) show change across time, across space (compared to other countries), and across issue area. Otherwise the debate becomes one of dueling anecdotes — here’s a case where China raised trade barriers vs. here’s a case where it lowered trade barriers; here’s a case where it is still abiding by an arms control commitment vs. here's a case where it's violated a commiment; here’s a case where the rule of law has deteriorated vs. here’s a case where the rule of law has been strengthened.

5. One is beginning to hear people use the term ‘revisionist’, even ‘revolutionary’ to describe China’s approach to a wide range of issues, not just policy on maritime disputes, but orientation toward the so-called US-led liberal order.  This terminology is ahistorical. During the Mao period China tried to overthrow pro-US governments, advocated the spread of nuclear weapons, toyed with the idea of setting up a revolutionary United Nations, severely limited contact with the global capitalist economy, and pursued autarkic development policies. Now that was a revolutionary foreign policy.