By Yasuhiro Matsuda
No nation in the world today has worked more strenuously than Japan to make sense of “China’s assertiveness.” In recent years, the Chinese government’s perceptions of Japan have transformed. Japan is viewed as a nation perilously tilting toward or reverting to pre–World War II militarism; a country that never learned the “lessons” of its early twentieth-century history; and a country that actively challenges the status quo in the postwar world order. China has, in turn, reacted with diplomatic and political pressure on Japan. Of course, China’s claim that Japan is precipitously regressing toward the status quo ante remains to be seen.
On the other hand, many scholars have studied China’s recent acts of assertiveness, particularly since 2008 and especially in the field of maritime expansion. Michael Swaine and M. Taylor Fravel define Chinese “assertiveness” as Chinese official or governmental behavior and statements that appear to threaten U.S. and allied interests or otherwise challenge the status quo in maritime Asia along China’s periphery, thereby undermining Asian stability and causing concern to U.S. and other Asian leaders. They argue that subordinate governmental actors and assertive action-reaction cycles influenced Beijing’s assertive behavior. Andrew Scobell and Scott W. Harold argue that China’s assertiveness since 2008 was amplified by two domestic challenges: Chinese leaders’ hypersensitivity to popular nationalism and poor bureaucratic coordination among an expanding number of foreign policy actors. The International Crisis Group raises the notion of “reactive assertiveness,” which means exploiting “perceived” provocations by other countries in disputed areas to change the status quo in its favor. On the other hand, Alastair Iain Johnston argues that seven events in 2010, which are usually perceived as representing new assertiveness in Chinese foreign policy, actually demonstrate previous patterns of Chinese assertiveness or China’s desire to uphold the status quo on a particular issue, with the exception of China’s behavior regarding the South China Sea.
This blog (and the associated paper) offers three hypotheses that contribute to explaining China’s assertiveness: 1) a “rising trend” hypothesis; 2) a “cycle of deterioration and amelioration” hypothesis; and 3) a “redefinition of strategic rivals” hypothesis.
The “rising trend” hypothesis holds that China is becoming more willing to challenge the current political order in Asia by relying on the sheer power of its increased military and economic capabilities. This hypothesis suggests that the turning point for this trend was roughly 2009, when China began to discuss reframing its diplomatic strategy by using the expression “core interests.” The 2008 global financial crisis showed the pitfalls of the “Washington consensus” and seemed to vindicate the “Beijing consensus,” especially due to China’s relatively quick recovery. This greatly emboldened the Chinese ruling elite, inducing a behavioral shift that became manifest in 2009–10. In addition, China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy in 2010.
The “cycle” hypothesis focuses heavily on the impact of two domestic factors on China’s external behavior: the economy and varying approaches to foreign relations by different Chinese leaders. It also presupposes that deterioration of China’s external relations is often triggered by the perceived misbehavior of other nations, and that China’s negative “overreaction” further worsens the situation. The “cycle” hypothesis holds that 1982 was the critical turning point of Chinese foreign policy. With the launching of the diplomatic strategy of “independent foreign policy of peace” (dulizizhu de hepingwaijiao), China began to expend a great deal of effort to achieve amicable relations with its neighbors with economic goals under peaceful circumstances in mind.
The third hypothesis is “redefinition of strategic rivals.” Some of China’s strategic goals or discourse are quite distant from current realities. For example, China insists that it is not divided and that Taiwan is a part of China, and that most of the East and South China Seas are “China’s sea.” China has confronted its neighbors and strategic rivals in order to narrow the gap between its goals and reality. This hypothesis supposes that China is always in conflict with some of its neighbors and at least one strategic rival because of the balance this strikes in its strategic relations. Thus, the behavioral patterns of Chinese diplomacy have not fundamentally changed; what has changed since the 1950s is which country China confronts and intensity of that confrontation.
These three hypotheses each have their own merits. Each captures some dimension of “truth” in Asia’s strategic relations. It can even be assumed that each hypothesis is accurate, or that the three of them are correlated, if one believes in the spiral-like evolution of history. If so, one can make the following prediction: that China’s hawkish assertiveness will escalate as its national power expands and that China will direct enmity to a specific country or group to isolate it or them. But once the strategic situation is seen as turning or in actuality turns against it, China will seek some solution by attempting to improve relations with the target nation at the most propitious moment. This brings all three hypotheses into play when explaining China’s relations.
Dr. Yasuhiro Matsuda is a professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies and a visiting scholar with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Dr. Matsuda’s essay is part of CSIS’s Strategic Japan Working Paper Series featuring Japanese scholars addressing pressing issues in Japanese foreign policy.