Why has Chinese foreign policy become more assertive?

20 February 2016
Author: Masayuki Masuda, NIDS / EastAsiaForum.org

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.

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 ‘new’ assertive behaviour since 2012 should be understood as a unified, intentional development by Beijing.

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. Read more…


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