Much of China’s new confidence on the world stage — some might say swagger or truculence — has been attributed to President Xi Jinping’s muscular leadership. But it really started shortly after the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and the global financial crisis of the same year. In February 2010, the scholar David Shambaugh wrote an op-ed (paywall) in the Financial Times titled “The year China showed its claws.”
In my view, the new assertiveness was stimulated by the apparent failure of the Western economic system. Global contempt for the current American president will further excite it. But China’s size and economic power mean that, sooner or later, it would outgrow Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim to “conceal our strengths and bide our time” (韬光养晦 tāoguāng yǎnghuì).
So what does the new assertiveness mean for the world? This week, several articles worth reading offer interpretations of how we can expect China to behave in the coming years:
China would call America’s bluff in the South China Sea
Hugh White, a prominent Australian scholar of strategic and defense policy and a former intelligence and defense official, has published an article that argues that the U.S. is not prepared to go to war over South China Sea territorial issues, and that China “would call America’s bluff” if Washington adopted a more aggressive posture in the South China Sea. Here’s the rub:
This brings us to the heart of America’s policy problem in the South China Sea. To understand that problem we have to be clear about the nature of the contest there. Beijing is not just trying to take control of an important body of water. It is trying to take control of East Asia. It hopes to use the South China Sea dispute to do that by demonstrating there that America is no longer willing to risk a military confrontation with China to sustain its own leading position in the Asian strategic order, and thereby concede that leadership to China.
Chinese patriots are new challenges to U.S. power
The Wall Street Journal has a profile in text and video (paywall) with a thirtysomething Chinese blogger, who studied at both Cambridge and Harvard and once idolized the West, but now “thinks it’s China that is ascendant and the U.S. that is terminally weakened by income inequality, divided government and a polarized society.” The profile uses the blogger as an illustration of a trend that has become impossible to deny: Many Chinese people born in the 1980s and afterward no longer look up to Western political systems and are increasingly supportive of their government, even — or perhaps especially — when they have spent time abroad.
Kicking the U.S. out of Asia
The National Interest, a conservative American publication that defines itself as “realist” and about “American interests” rather than world affairs, has published an opinion piece provocatively titled “China’s strategy in Asia is simple: Kick America out.” While many of the details in the piece can be quibbled with, there are some gems:
China, manifestly formidable, is still typically analyzed as a “rising power” or an “emerging power,” one challenging “established powers.” Connoted by these terms is a ridiculously unhistorical image: China-as-parvenu. A longer look back may better name—and explain—what the world now sees.
China’s toolbox of economic coercion
Veteran diplomat Evan Feigenbaum has published an article on Macro Polo (a new website from the Paulson Institute of which he is vice chair), which asks, “Is coercion the new normal in China’s economic statecraft?”
In answer, Feigenbaum writes that “Beijing seems certain to continue using economic leverage for political and strategic ends,” but that “blunt coercion isn’t likely to become routine either.” Instead, Beijing has a toolbox of economic inducements to shape the behavior of other countries, which it is learning to “mix and match” to achieve its political goals:
- Passive leverage over foreign economic interests, such as companies with a stake in China’s economy, to pressure their own governments for nonconfrontational relations with China.
- Active leverage, where China uses “its economic power — or the lure of Chinese foreign direct investment — to lock in its political and economic preferences.”
- Exclusionary leverage, which “means granting or denying access to China’s own domestic market in an effort to ratchet up the pressure.”
- Coercive leverage, where China “attempts to inflict discrete punishments tied to discrete ‘offenses,’” such as obstructing Norwegian salmon imports after Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 received the Nobel Peace Prize, or new fees on commodity exports to China from Mongolia after a Dalai Lama visit to Ulaanbaatar.
- Latent leverage, or “the coercive cards it holds but chooses not to play,” such as Washington’s hopes that China will economically sanction North Korea.
China flexes its military muscles
In reaction to the ongoing border standoff between India, China, and Bhutan, Harsh V. Pant, a scholar of international relations and Asian security issues, published an opinion piece titled “China’s conduct and the logic of power,” which argues that “China’s growing economic footprint around the world is now being followed by its military footprint, and that’s the reality of great power.”