Debating China's Assertiveness - A Discussion with CWP Alumnis Xiaoyu Pu, DingDing Chen & Alastair Iain Johnston

Wednesday, Apr 5, 2017
by dsuchens

In “How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness?” Iain Johnston argues that China’s recent foreign policy is not as assertive as many scholars and pundits contend. Johnston’s study is a welcome addition to the literature on Chinese foreign policy in three respects.1 First, it is the most comprehensive study by a leading China scholar on China’s new assertiveness. Second, it challenges the conventional understanding that this assertiveness is both unprecedented and aggressive by design. Third, it addresses potential problems of overestimating the threat from China. In this letter, we argue that Johnston’s definition of assertiveness is too narrow. In addition, he underestimates the significance of China’s new assertiveness in foreign policy more broadly.2

A new typology of china’s assertiveness Johnston states that assertiveness in international politics refers to “a form of assertive diplomacy that explicitly threatens to impose costs on another actor that are clearly higher than before” (p. 9). This definition omits the possibility that assertiveness also has a positive connotation. In social life, for example, “assertiveness” is sometimes associated with positive personal traits such as self-respect and self-confidence.3 Johnston also suggests that China exercises its assertiveness only in territorial disputes and is otherwise a status quo power. Finally, he evaluates China’s assertiveness based on whether China is more or less assertive than it was in the past.