Foreign Policy: Dealing with an assertive China

February 23, 2016

Foreign Policy: Dealing with an assertive China in the South China Sea

by Masayuki Masuda
National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS), Tokyo

China’s rise as a quasi-superpower represents the most important change in the international system in the 21st century. China is now widely viewed as the de facto strategic rival of the United States and a potential challenger to US global supremacy, particularly in the Asia Pacific.

Chinese People's Liberation Army soldiers march during a military parade. (Photo: AAP)

Many observers have described Chinese diplomacy as newly and increasingly assertive in the wake of rising tensions in the South China Sea. How should we understand this ‘new’ assertiveness?

China’s assertive foreign policy has often been understood as a response to the 2008–2009 global financial crisis. In July 2009, Chinese President Hu Jintao delivered a speech to a national envoy meeting, insisting on the need to increase Chinese power and influence in the international arena. Hu referred to the strategic guideline usually abbreviated as taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei — ‘keeping a low profile and achieving something’ (KLP/AS) — coined by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1990s. Hu further stressed this policy, stating that China should ‘insist upon keeping a low profile and proactively achieving something’.

While the full text of Hu’s speech has not been made public, the People’s Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s Central Committee, stressed that China should pursue ‘four strengths’ in its foreign policy. That is, China should attain greater influence in international politics, strengthen its competitiveness in the global economy, cultivate ‘more affinity in its image’ and become a ‘more appealing force in morality’.

Since then, there appeared to be a significant contradiction between the PRC’s officially announced intentions and the external behaviour of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and maritime law enforcement agencies. Some China-based official media criticised in 2011 the neglect of an indispensable part of its strategy — keeping a low profile.

As Xi Jinping has consolidated power, this picture has changed. Xi Jinping has not mentioned the KLP/AS dictum. Rather, he calls for fenfa youwei (‘striving for achievement’ or SFA) to realise the ‘Chinese dream’ on the world stage, and particularly in China’s peripheral diplomacy. The Chinese dream is a vision of the Chinese nation rejuvenated as a prosperous country with a powerful military.

Xi has tried to rebuild domestic foreign affairs and security institutions, including by establishing the Central National Security Commission (CNSC) in January 2014. The CNSC, headed by Xi, is intended as a top-level body for improving interagency coordination and developing a holistic national security strategy.

President Xi — who is General Secretary of the CCP and chairman of both the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the CNSC — has played an increasingly dominant role in foreign and security policymaking and interagency coordination among the Party, the government and the PLA.

Xi’s SFA declaration does not have much in common with the phrase ‘keeping a low profile’. Rather, SFA stresses the need to safeguard China’s national sovereignty and security interests as well as economic success. According to Tsinghua University Professor Yan Xuetong, Xi’s SFA strategy aims to achieve a favourable environment for China’s national rejuvenation. This differs fundamentally from the KLP strategy, which aims to create an international environment conducive to economic development.

Xi sees his country as a major power on the world stage. In an October 2014 speech, Xi presented the concept of ‘major-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics’. This was the first time in many decades that Beijing’s leadership has described China’s diplomacy as that of a ‘major power’.

China has put the SFA strategy into practice through its proposal for a ‘new type of great power relations’ between China and the United States, through the One Belt, One Road initiative for connectivity in Eurasia, and through Xi’s pledge to contribute 8000 troops to a UN peacekeeping standby force.

The Asia Pacific region is the core of China’s current foreign and security policy activities. Xi said in 2013 that China should aim to promote political relationships, solidify economic bonds, deepen security cooperation and intensify cultural exchange in the region. This announcement was followed by China’s proposals to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Silk Road Fund.

The region is full of potential traditional threats for China, including the territorial and maritime boundary disputes and the US rebalance to Asia. The latter is seen in Beijing as the biggest obstacle to resolving the territorial disputes in China’s favour. Protecting maritime sovereignty and rights has become a top policy priority, on par with maintaining regional stability.

Xi stressed the importance of safeguarding national sovereignty in China’s periphery both at the 2013 Periphery Diplomacy Work Meeting and the 2014 Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference. China’s current reclamation and construction efforts in the South China Sea are regarded in China as part of the SFA strategy. In the words of Admiral Sun Jianguo in May 2015, they are ‘legitimate and justified’ activities.

Although China’s land reclamation efforts could improve the country’s ability to maintain military operations in the region on a day-to-day basis, they arguably violate the general spirit of cooperation and self-restraint embodied in the 2002 South China Sea Declaration of Conduct. It has become clear that China has adopted a more heavy-handed approach to the maritime territorial disputes in the region.

China’s ‘new’ assertive behaviour since 2012 should be understood as a unified, intentional development by Beijing. China has emerged as a major strategic power and Beijing’s emphases on sovereignty, security and its great power status reflect this. Now, and in the years to come, the Chinese dream will be played out on the world stage.

Masayuki Masuda is Senior Fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS), Tokyo. He is also a visiting scholar at the East-West Center and a visiting academic at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS), Honolulu.

6 thoughts on “Foreign Policy: Dealing with an assertive China

  1. Most countries will not back down when there is a territorial challenge because it questions its sovereignty. So the answer is for all countries to recognize this and act accordingly to settle any disputes. Yes, sometimes we are tempted to use a big brother to lead the charge. Sometimes it works but more often than not it only hardens positions.

  2. Tension in SCS is rising. While FM Wang Yi is visiting the US, President Obama stated that his administration would continue to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in SCS. According to a senior US Army official, speaking to Scout Warrior, the US may soon deploy mobile artillery, the kind traditionally used in land-based offensive, to the SCS, as defensive units. Such a plan would require the cooperation of regional allies, notably the Philippines. If approved, Washington’s weapon deployment would continue a pattern of US aggression in the SCS. The US is resorting to might makes right.

  3. Look, i don’t know where this writer is getting off, about.

    When Mao-fiosi Xi Jinping was initially chosen to lead PRC by opaque belakang mati negotiations within the CCP-CC, his priorities were way different from the previous administrations. A Fruit of the Loins of Cultural Revolutionists, he has inbred stratified rules of ‘Internationalization, Accommodation and Engagement’. This principle is the same for all those Myopic Mandarins who Middle-Kingdomed themselves into oblivion.

    When facing economic disaster and running-doggy-ism (i.e capital flight of unprecedented ‘fashion’) – let’s put the blame on small farts – instead of inefficient Pokkai SOEs’, archaic banking systems, corruption and tremendous unpalatable-defaulting loans by regional gomens from the Center. A burden too much to bear, even for congenitally Entitled Elitists. Reform to domestication mah..

    So to deflect from home-spun angst, nothing easier than to flex some muscle and ‘bunga-mas’ the weak and gullible Non-Hans, i.e Brownies. Hard ass like. The mild mannered PM, otoh, is a much more accommodating fella, but has been pasteurized into a goat kid.

    But the fact remains: PRC military tech is about 2 generations behind Uncle Sam. And totally dependent on old Soviet engineering.. Green water is about as far they can go.

    The (USA) Taikor, being the self appointed World’s policeman has morphed into trigger happy Burning Bush-like entity, sloppily lobbing missiles onto the heads of circumcised ‘terror’ Camels while scolding psycho syphilitic ‘atomic’ despots. Distracted and self-conflicted Gwailos. Started too many fires to put out.

    (This is a personal opinion of a retarded mongrel, and does not necessarily represent the views of the Blogger.)

  4. Looks like Trump will win the Republican nomination and may even win the presidential election.

    A self-professed hawk like him will come out with 3 guns blazing, (2 up 1 down), to put the Chinese Commies in their rightful place.

    How the Chinese, inventor of gun powder, will respond would decide the destiny of the World for the next two generations of its people.

    Time to say God help us, please.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s