How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness? - CWP Director Alastair Iain Johnston

Tuesday, Apr 25, 2017
by dsuchens

In recent years, it has become increasingly common in US media, pundit, and academic circles to describe the diplomacy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as newly or increasingly assertive.1 Some observers have even suggested that this new assertiveness refects a fundamental shift in Chinese diplomacy away from Beijing’s more status quo–oriented behavior of the previous thirty years.2 Many believe that it reºects a conscious decision by the top leadership in the wake of the 2008–09 ªnancial crisis to be much more proactive in challenging U.S. interests in East Asia and, indeed, elsewhere around the world. The new assertiveness meme has “gone viral” in the U.S. media, the blogosphere, and in scholarly work. This article argues, however, that the new assertiveness meme underestimates the degree of assertiveness in certain policies in the past, and overestimates the amount of change in China’s diplomacy in 2010 and after. 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. Moreover, the claims about a new assertiveness typically do not provide a deªnition of assertiveness, are unclear about the causal mechanisms behind this shift toward assertiveness, and lack comparative rigor that better contextualizes China’s diplomacy in 2010. Why should policymakers and scholars worry about a problematic characterization of Chinese foreign policy? Putting aside the intellectual importance of accurately measuring the dependent variable in the study of a major power’s foreign policy, there are two good reasons. First, if it persists, the new assertiveness meme could contribute to an emerging security dilemma in the U.S.-China relationship. “Talk” is consequential for both interstate and intrastate politics during intensifying security dilemmas and strategic rivalries. China’s New Assertiveness? How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness? Alastair Iain Johnston Alastair Iain Johnston is the Laine Professor of China in World Affairs in the Government Department at Harvard University. The author would like to thank Dennis Blasko, Joseph Fewsmith, Thomas Fingar, M. Taylor Fravel, Michael Horowitz, Alison Kaufman, and Evan Medeiros for comments and criticisms. They do not necessarily agree with the content of this article. 1. For examples of this type of commentary, see Michael Swaine, “Perceptions of an Assertive China,” China Leadership Monitor, No. 32 (May 2010), p. 10 n 1. 2. Daniel Twining described China’s diplomacy as “militant assertiveness.” See Twining, “Were U.S.-India Relations Oversold? Part II,” Shadow Government, Foreign Policy, blog, June 12, 2012, International Security, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Spring 2013), pp. 7–48 © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Alastair Iain Johnston