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The Advantages of an Assertive China
THOMAS J. CHRISTENSEN is William P. Boswell Professor of World Politics of Peace and War at Princeton University. He is the author of Worse Than a Monolith: Alliance Politics and Problems of Coercive Diplomacy in Asia. From 2006 to 2008, he was U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State with responsibility for policy toward China, Taiwan, and Mongolia. A version of this essay was originally presented as the 2010 Charles Neuhauser Memorial Lecture at Harvard University.See more by this author
Over the past two years, in a departure from the policy of reassurance it adopted in the late 1990s, China has managed to damage relations with most of its neighbors and with the United States. Mistrust of Beijing throughout the region and in Washington is palpable. Observers claim that China has become more assertive, revising its grand strategy to reflect its own rise and the United States' decline since the financial crisis began in 2008. In fact, China's counterproductive policies toward its neighbors and the United States are better understood as reactive and conservative rather than assertive and innovative. Beijing's new, more truculent posture is rooted in an exaggerated sense of China's rise in global power and serious domestic political insecurity. As a result, Chinese policymakers are hypersensitive to nationalist criticism at home and more rigid -- at times even arrogant -- in response to perceived challenges abroad.
A series of recent standoffs and tough diplomatic gestures certainly seem a world apart from China's previous strategy, set in the 1990s, of a "peaceful rise," which emphasized regional economic integration and multilateral confidence building in an effort to assuage the fears of China's neighbors during its ascendance to great-power status. Examples of China's recent abrasiveness abound. In 2009, Chinese ships harassed the unarmed U.S. Navy ship Impeccable in international waters off the coast of China. At the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Regional Forum in July 2010, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi warned Southeast Asian states against coordinating with outside powers in managing territorial disputes with Beijing. Later that year, Beijing demanded an apology and compensation from Tokyo after Japan detained -- and then released, under Chinese pressure -- a Chinese fishing boat captain whose boat had collided with a Japanese coast guard vessel. Also in 2010, Chinese officials twice warned the United States and South Korea against conducting naval exercises in international waters near China -- even after North Korea sank a South Korean naval vessel in March, revealed a well-developed uranium-enrichment program in November, and then shelled a South Korean island, Yeonpyeong, that same month.