Contextualising the ‘Assertive China’ Narrative

Article written by Neja Štrukelj (nejastrukelj84@gmail.com)

A number of events in the recent years have resulted crucial for the transformation of the public understanding of China’s governmentality and the country’s foreign policy. These events, ranging from an array of maritime territorial disputes between China and its neighbouring countries, the country becoming the largest recipient of foreign direct investment in 2012, Xi Jinping’s 习近平 new development strategy known as ‘One Belt, One Road (Yidai yilu 一代一路) coupled with the official launching of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or AIIB (Yazhou jichu sheshi touzi yinhang 亚洲基础设施投资银行) and the recent military parade held in Beijing, seem to have prompted a revival of the ‘China threat’ debate which is highly reminiscent of the ‘Yellow Peril’ hysteria of the 19th and early 20th centuries and, perhaps even more so, of the Cold-War mentality and the containment strategy that characterised it.

The so-called ‘assertive China discourse’ is founded on the general belief that China’s foreign policy has been undergoing a significant transformation, especially from 2012 onwards. The widely accepted notion of Xi Jinping’s China growing ever more assertive with respect to its international relations is supported by the fact that China’s foreign policy has, in fact, experienced a shift under the Xi-Li administration.

No Longer Keeping a Low Profile?

Due to the authoritarian nature of China’s political system, the country’s international behaviour has been subject to much scholarly attention in Western liberal democracies. Most recently, the main focus has been placed on China’s new strategic role in Asia-Pacific and the implications of China’s economic hegemony in the region, with the great majority of China scholars suggesting that the country’s international strategy has experienced an unprecedented shift in approach.

When the Chinese economy entered the chapter of its fast-paced economic growth, only recently ceasing to grow at double-digit rates, Deng Xiaoping formulated the country’s foreign policy by adopting the Chinese idiomatic expression taoguang yanghui 韬光养晦, which translates as  Keeping a Low Profile (hereinafter KLP). The key principle underlying this policy is, as the Chinese idiom itself suggests, to create a peaceful political environment that would allow China to develop its economy without meddling with world affairs. In the words of the Chinese State Councilor, the KLP policy advocates ‘being moderate and cautious, undertaking no leadership, raising no banner, searching for no expansion, not running after hegemony and being consistent with the idea of peaceful development’ (Yan 2014: 155). The central idea behind these principles has been to reassure the global superpowers (chiefly the U.S.) that China does not seek to challenge the U.S. hegemony. To be sure, adhering to the ‘Low Profile’ policy has enabled China to experience an impressive economic growth, lifting 600 million of its citizens out of poverty. The striking societal changes spurred by the country’s economic metamorphosis, however, have resulted in the legitimacy crisis – and power legitimation is of vital importance for any regime, be it a liberal democracy or an authoritarian single-party system. Indeed, when Xi Jinping assumed power, it became obvious that important changes, both political and economic, were on the horizon as the CCP seeks to reinforce its rule.

Is China Striving For Achievement?

In keeping with this reasoning is the generally accepted notion among the leading China researchers that the Middle Kingdom’s foreign strategy has shifted from the KLP policy to a substantially more aggressive one, which, in its essence, is presumed to be diametrically opposed to its predecessor. As such, the new policy is directly associated with another policy put forward by Xi, namely, Zhonghua minzu weida fuxing 中华民族伟大复兴 or the Great rejuvenation of Chinese nation.

 Accordingly, the Chinese idiom that has been in place to describe China’s new international strategy is fenfayouwei 奋发有为 , which tends to be translated as Striving for Achievement (hereinafter SFA). One can’t help but notice how the English translations of both idioms fail to reproduce the original meanings and  evoke negative connotations (I recommend reading this post in on the various forms that the taoguang yanghui 韬光养晦 has been interpreted ).

To be sure, there appears to be indisputable evidence of Xi Jinping’s China adopting a more uncompromising approach in tackling some of the country’s perennial issues, both domestically and internationally, such as the deeply embedded cadre corruption and the South China Sea and the East China Sea territorial disputes. On the whole, there is strong evidence to suggest that the CCP has sought to strengthen its authority under Xi Jinping.

Putting aside the strategic implications and the rationale behind China’s foreign policy transformation, Western perceptions of China throughout the history reveal a tendency to demonise it – indeed, the sheer size of China and its economy do make any drastic change seem daunting, as its consequences would inevitably have a dramatic impact on the rest of the world. This reason alone, however, does not justify the ongoing demonisation of China and the acceptance of ‘the new assertiveness [which] became conventional wisdom’ (Jerden 2014: 76). In fact,  the ‘China threat’ group has always resorted to the ‘China bashing’ strategy. With respect to the KLP policy, the ‘China threat’ group has tried to interpret the KLP as China’s hiding her true capabilities while biding her time for revenge. (Yan 2014: 156)

The purpose of this article is not to wade into the ‘assertive China’ debate, but rather to contextualise the latter within the changing geopolitical landscape .

Imposing Western Categories onto Chinese Realities

As  Jerden (2014: 77) critically observes, ‘[o]bservers with more shallow China knowledge, such as journalists and policy bloggers, interpret scattered news according to a convincing framework’, which has led to a situation where extra-factual information is turned into an indisputable social fact.

This can, however, be avoided by adopting a cross-cultural research approach – i.e. basing the research on a specific cultural background and the key concepts that shape it. Having read numerous journalistic and scholarly articles on recent events regarding China’s foreign policy, it became obvious that the vast majority of China scholars seem to be ‘foisting Western categories and concepts onto Chinese realities (Gries and Rosen 2004: 4)‘.  The tendency of the West to employ its own concepts and categories on non-European realities is a well-known phenomenon that is beyond the scope of this article. It is, nevertheless, essential to note the ways that the Western understanding of the world dynamics is embedded in the ‘assertive China’ narrative. An article by Qin Yaqing, a professor of International Studies at China Foreign Affairs University, seeks to understand the complex realities of this narrative by emphasising that the Chinese perceptions of reality do not correspond to the rationale underlying the ‘assertive China’ narrative.  

While it was the likes of Hegel and other Enlightenment thinkers who determined many of the cognitive patterns of the modern Western man, the Chinese developed their own specific understanding of the world dynamics that is inherently different from Hegelian logic. In line with the either-or Hegelian dialectics, according to which a relationship between two opposites is an essentially conflictual one, is the notion that one of the two must ultimately prevail. The outcome of such categorisation in international politics is the theory of political realism.  John Mearsheimer,  one of the leading theorists of political realism, maintains that the continuance is every country’s primary goal and whenever a potential global power emerges, a military combat between the old hegemon and the rising global power is inevitable. In line with this reasoning is the belief that China is likely to work towards pushing the US out of Asia and would, at the point of being economically stronger than US, challenge the US military power.

From a Chinese standpoint, however, this type of zero-sum rationale goes against the core principle of Chinese philosophy – the correlativity of all opposites.  While the Western philosophy teaches that the relationship between the two opposites is conflictual, the Chinese have the tendency to structure the relationship between two opposites as complementary – one element complements the other, in contrast to Western logic where one element prevails. As Qin (2014: 288) explains, ‘In contrast to the conflictual dialectics […], the zhongyong [中庸i.e. the ‘middle way] dialectic argues that interacting poles are complementary in nature, and inclusive of each other. [This] best illustrates the Chinese way of thinking and the Chinese worldview through which they understand the self, the other, the universe, and, especially, the relationships among them.‘.

Bearing in mind this intrinsic difference between the Western and Chinese perception of world dynamics, it is not difficult to understand the reasons underlying the existing divergence between the U.S. and Chinese interpretation of the future path of China’s development. Much contrary to the realist perspective is the formal rhetoric of  China’s Peaceful Development (Zhongguo heping fazhan 中国和平发展), which China’s former chairman Hu Jintao 胡锦涛 described in the following way: ‘China should energetically engage in regional cooperation in order to jointly create a peaceful regional environment featuring equality, mutual trust and win-win cooperation.’

Not all Western scholars, however, see the development of China’s power through the prism of political realism. In his work Adam Smith in Beijing, Giovanni Arrighi discusses China’s path towards becoming one of the key players in global economy, arguing that  ‘China can and will avoid the road of aggression and expansion followed by earlier rising powers (2007: 291). This assumption is based on author’s extensive knowledge of China’s political history, further maintaining that China, in contrast to most global superpowers, has never been driven by expansionist desires – the so-called ‘tributary system’, imposed on the majority of adjacent countries by the Chinese Emperor, was of a mutually beneficial nature and should as such in no way be associated with the notion of Western-led colonialism. Arrighi’s view is in line with the official rhetoric of the CCP, as has been illustrated in the words of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang 李克强 during his visit in Malaysia in November: ‘Hegemony is never within China’s culture and policy, as proved by ancient Chinese navigator Zheng He’s great expeditionary voyages during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).’ 

Ontological differences aside, there is an entire array of factors which have contributed to the current impression of China in the West.  Indeed, incidents such as the 2009 Impeccable incident, the 2012 Sino-Philippine standoff and the 2013 Diaoyu/Senkaku island second crisis, shed a negative light on China and reinforce the notion of the country’s increasingly tough stance in international affairs. Western China observers unanimously voice their criticism of the way China has been dealing with the crisis, often suggesting that China’s uncompromising stance vis-a-vis the disputed territories is causing it  international embarrassment.

Economic and Geopolitical Factors Shaping China’s Foreign Policy

The ongoing debate on China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour seems to have overlooked the importance of domestic factors, which highly determine the course of foreign policy in every country. In times when both the U.S. and China are faced with power  legitimation crisis , both sides are urging for the establishment of a new type of relationship, built on mutual trust and ‘dispel[ing] mutual suspicion and prevent strategic miscalculation’.

Indeed, both global superpowers realize that their existing disagreements are overshadowed by their common interests. To be sure, China and the U.S. are trapped in a state of economic interdependency and neither wishes to see the other become economically unstable. China is, admittedly, the largest foreign holder of US debt. This fact alone, however, does not give China much economic leverage over Washington, since both countries need the dollar to be strong and dumping the US debt would, therefore, have catastrophic consequences for Chinese economy. In this respect, it is highly unlikely that the two countries would engage in any form of direct military confrontation.

Hence, what we are witnessing in South China Sea is a mere reflection of political realities between the two countries and, more broadly, their economic and geopolitical interestts in the region. What merits attention is the fact that China’s growing bargaining power in trade relations, together with the country’s relative economic stability in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, means that China enjoys considerable leverage over a number of Asian countries. More importantly, China is the single largest trade partner of many Asian countries, including some of the countries involved in maritime disputes (e.g. Japan and Vietnam). Surely, China has become an indispensable economic driving force in the region and this fact has actually greatly contributed to the building of closer ties between China and countries such as South Korea and Thailand, traditionally U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Nevertheless, despite China’s pledge to invest in overall Asian infrastructure through the recently established AIIB, several countries, most notably the Philippines and Malaysia, have openly expressed their suspicions regarding China’s intentions. This state of affairs encapsulates the ways that the two global forces indirectly interact with each other. Furthermore, what merits attentions is that both Obama and Xi administration are facing growing domestic pressure as the elections/power transition in both countries are drawing near.    

China’s Great Rejuvenation and CCP Power Legitimation

In China, the country’s growing global importance has become an element that is significantly shaping Chinese public opinion.  The Chinese nation, haunted by its turbulent past and  traumatised by what is commonly referred to as The Century of Humiliation (bainian guochi 百年国耻), is gaining confidence and no longer regards itself as one of the marginal players, therefore no longer having to yield to the demands of global superpowers. It is within this frame of reference that Xi Jinping’s campaign of national rejuvenation needs to be perceived. In the past, the ‘soft’ approach of the CCP leadership has been subject to considerable criticism among the Chinese citizens. This shift in public perception can perhaps best be illustrated by the change in common reference to the Hu-Wen administration:  while they have been referred to as ‘Darling Hu and Wen’ (huwen baobao 胡温宝宝) during the first few years of their administration, this nickname has gradually been transformed to ‘weak Hu and Wen’ (huwen ruanruo 胡温软弱).  (Lin 2015: 487)

Confronted with widespread social discontent over the past decade, the CCP must take this popular sentiment into consideration when developing new policies. While the Party’s primary legitimation sources are still stability maintenance (weiwen 维稳) and economic development (jingji fazhan 经济发展), the CCP has been increasingly resorting to  another legitimation source: nationalism. As such, the current nationalistic campaign aims to restore China’s rightful place in the world. Moreover, the rising nationalist sentiment is fuelled by Chinese indignation over international criticism of its domestic and international behaviour. In the context of ‘China bashing’ tendency and the ‘assertive China’ narrative, the Chinese have had it with the unflattering portrayal of China in the Western media. Indeed, as emphasised by Pei Minxin, China has long been subject to double standards on part of the West, which has continually been dismissing the authoritarian nature of the CCP regime as illegitimate and, thus, untrustworthy. This means that whenever China gets involved in an international dispute, the West tends to promote the interests of China’s opponents. On another hand, this liberal bias is accompanied by international criticism of China’s unwillingness to assume greater international responsibilities, especially in global security issues (most notably in the case of North Korea’s nuclear weapon).

Ironically enough, it is precisely this ideological bias that fosters nationalist sentiment among the Chinese, thus working in favour of the CCP. Pei Minxin observes that ‘most ordinary citizens believe the Chinese government is, if anything, not assertive enough. They see […] Western criticisms of Chinese behavior as unfair and hypocritical.’

This has created a condition where popular will urges the CCP leadership to take a more stringent approach in international affairs. Hence, while Western media were extremely critical of the military parade held in Bejing this September, portraying it as a display of China’s military might, the implications of the event were, in fact, much deeper. Xi, pledging that China would never seek hegemony or expansion [and] it will never inflict its past suffering on any other nation’, was equally determined to convey the indirect message of China being unwilling to tolerate foreign intimidation or oppression. It seems the message was aimed particularly at Shinzo Abe, Japanese Prime Minister. As Steve Tsang has noted on this occasion: ‘China is not marking an Allied victory and the end of the War in Asia. It is specifically celebrating “the 70th anniversary of China’s victory in the War of Resistance Against Japanese aggression”. In this way the CCP is affirming its historical narrative that China defeated the Japanese under the leadership of the Communist Party.’.

In truth, the parade may be regarded as yet another marketing gimmick under the banner of nationalism as a means of CCP power legitimation.  By doing so, the CCP managed to kill two birds with one stone. First of all, it expressed its disapproval of Abe Shinzo lifting the ‘anti-war’ clause in Japan’s Constitution, thus bringing the Japanese post II WW pacifist spirit to an end. Secondly, Japan is not the sole source of concern for China. What the CCP leadership actually finds more alarming is the so-called US Rebalancing Act, Washington’s counterpart of the AIIB, with its central tenet to recentre U.S. interests to Asia in the context of promoting multilateral corporation and regional stability. Under this policy, as much as 60 per cent of entire US navy will be deployed in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. The reason underlying the formation of this new security alliance in Asia-Pacific appears to be associated with China’s alleged foreign policy shift: China’s new assertiveness in regional territorial disputes serves as a legitimate justification for the new alliance (with the major US allies being Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam). In general, it is all about keeping the status quo in the region – as the U.S. is facing considerable domestic problems, it has to reassure its citizens by proactively engaging itself in the Asia-Pacific region in order to rebalance China. In other words, one might speak of a post-Cold War rebalancing of power and containment strategy.

Essentially, there is hardly any difference between the measures undertaken by the two superpowers as public opinion dictates the direction of both countries’ international behaviour. While the general sentiment in the U.S. regarding China could be summed up as ‘The oppressive authoritarian CCP regime is creating a condition where it is trying to expand, first within the region itself, then trying to replace the US as the global hegemon’, the Chinese would probably reply ‘The new military US presence in Asia is aimed at containing and intimidating China under the pretext of building regional economic prosperity and sustainability’. That said, nationalism has always been a powerful source of regime legitimation and perhaps the most widely utilised one. This state of affairs can best be described with the words of Chinese military scholar Lin Chongbin: ‘Toughness abroad yields domestic applause’ (dui wai de qiangying taidu hui yingde guonei de zhichi 对外的强硬态度会赢得国内的支持). 

The matter of fact is that neither China nor the US are in the position which would allow them to jeopardise regional security, thereby putting the countries’ economic prosperity at risk. The US, by shifting its emphasis in the Asia-Pacific region, has acknowledged the importance of China in the 21st century. China, by recently trying to show a friendlier face towards Taiwan and Vietnam, is taking steps to alter its international image, while simultaneously announcing that it is not willing to make any concessions regarding its sovereignty issues. As Pei Minxin points out, China is letting the US know that ‘it can not bash and beg at the same time’.

This article has sought to substantiate that the ‘assertive China’ meme is not to be taken as a conventional wisdom in a world where every single participant of the global economy would be affected by potential security and economic setbacks. Foreign policy changes of both the US and China are driven by domestic factors and the necessity to strengthen domestic popular support of the country’s leadership.

Posted at: Sunday July 24th, 2016, by : yuan

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