Why has Chinese foreign policy become more assertive?

Author: Masayuki Masuda, NIDS

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 a 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.

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