Review: 'How New and Assertive is China's New Assertiveness' by Alastair Iain Johnston, Spring 2013

[This review is part of a new experiment. I have read for general impressions, main points, and potentially useful material for myself and others. This is not a detailed methodological or theoretical examination, nor is it a conscientious summary. I have tried to consider both specialist and generalist audiences. Comments are very welcome, as I hope to be doing this more often. -Graham]

Under Review

Johnston, Alastair Iain. “How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness?” International Security 37:4 (2013): 7–48.

Review

isec.2013.37.issue-4.largecoverIain Johnston’s recent article in International Security recalls one of my favorite teaching pieces, which Johnston co-authored with Sheena Chestnut: “Is China Rising?” In that piece, Johnston and Chestnut asked the title question at a time when scholars, journalists, and pundits were instead asking about the implications of China’s rise. The new piece takes a similar tack, arguing that while “the new assertiveness meme has ‘gone viral,'” the evidence does not bear out a clear “assertive” turn in Chinese foreign policy.

Focusing on 2010, Johnston lays out seven areas in which China is supposed to have been more assertive and concludes that in most cases, a perception of new assertiveness is produced by one of a few mistakes. One is the classic cherry-picking problem (“selecting on the dependent variable”), in which arguments are based on instances that appear to support the assertiveness claim without examining those that might indicate cooperation. But the best of the argument comes in the one-by-one examination of seven major areas of supposed assertiveness, each of which has its problems. Johnston summarizes:

These seven major events in Chinese foreign policy in 2012 represent a mixture of new assertiveness (South China Sea); old assertiveness with a twist (the threat to sanction U.S. arms manufacturers that sell to Taiwan); reduced assertiveness (the Dalai Lama visit); probably predictable responses to exogenous shocks (Senkaku/Diaoyudao incident); the continuation of reactive/passive policies in the face of changed and less-hospitable diplomatic circumstances (Copenhagen, DPRK policy); and in one case, empirical inaccuracy (the South China Sea as a core interest claim). In toto, the differences across these cases suggest that there was no across-the-board new assertiveness in Chinese diplomacy in 2010 (31–32).

These points are generally well-made, and readers interested in any part of that laundry list might wish to engage with the details in the article. The article also examines four common explanations of the supposed new assertiveness (under “Problematic Causal Arguments”): change in the distribution of power; rising Chinese nationalism; the politics of leadership transition; and the power of the PLA.

Hidden Treasure

I think two parts of the paper deserve highlighting as valuable regardless of the overall argument.

  • In the section on “The Power of the PLA” as a causal argument for the supposed new assertiveness, Johnston provides an excellent reading of the landscape of Chinese foreign policy and PLA commentary (39–45, but especially 43–44). Johnston argues that official PLA commentary tracks over-all CPC commentary fairly closely, but that greater space for individual opinions has opened, especially for the “more nationalistic and militaristic voices.” A key assertion for those who have watched retired Chinese generals issue strident opinions in recent years is this: “[I]n the new media environment in China, these PLA authors (especially the quasi-and fully retired once) may sometimes represent only themselves.” Look at this section for a good, though by no means complete, rundown of voices out there and some of their stances over time.
  • Another nice kernel is this list of examples of Chinese behavior we might see as cooperative, rather than assertive, in 2010: “the continued growth of U.S. exports to China during the year; the continued high congruence in U.S. and Chinese voting in the UN Security Council; Chinese support for UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which imposed tougher sanctions on the Iranian regime—a move appreciated by the Obama administration; Beijing’s abiding by its 2009 agreement with the United States to hold talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama; a Chinese decision to continue the appreciation of the renminbi prior to the Group of Twenty meeting in Toronto in June 2010; Hu Jintao’s decision to attend the U.S.-hosted nuclear summit in April 2010 (in the wake of the January 2010 Taiwan arms sales decision, the Chinese had hinted that Hu would not attend the summit); a Chinese decision to pressure the Sudan government to exercise restraint should South Sudan declare independence, and China’s more constructive cross-strait policies, in the wake of Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 election as president of the Republic of China…” (32–33). Phew.

A Swing and a Miss

The only response I had seen to this paper was from Daniel W. Drezner, the Tufts professor and Foreign Policy blogger. Drezner seized on passing references in Johnston’s introduction and conclusion, in which he speculates that this mistaken “new assertiveness” meme results from “a new, but poorly understood, factor in international relations—namely, the speed with which new conventional wisdoms are created, at least within the public sphere, by the interaction of the internet-based traditional media and the blogosphere” (46–47). An interesting thought.

Though Johnston marshals a few references in support of this notion, he really doesn’t make the case. As Drezner writes: “What’s ironic about this is that in the article, Johnston properly takes a lot of the conventional wisdom to task for ahistoricism and problematic causal arguments in assessing Chinese behavior after 2008.  I’d wager, however, that Johnston has done the exact same thing with respect to the foreign policy blogosphere.”

This is a fair critique, as far as the text concerned goes. At very least, if Johnston is right, he has not made a very solid case and has not provided solid comparisons with the past. But this is a bit of a sideshow, given that the speed-of-groupthink argument subsumes a total of three paragraphs out of 41 pages. I’d like to see more recent work on this point, work I’m sure is out there or in progress.

Who Should Read This

Johnston has written a rare work of international relations scholarship that can serve as a direct intervention in foreign policy discourse outside academia. Sure, a 1,500-word version might be more digestible, but general international politics readers should have no trouble following.

For U.S.–China relations scholars or practitioners, the paper is at least a required skim. For those interested in discourse on U.S.–China relations and the shape of ongoing debates, it’s a required read.

Journalists, too, should give this one a read. Just like the “rise of China,” “China’s new assertiveness” comes easily to the keyboard. It also comes out of sources’ lips frequently. This article reviews one big idea and several small ideas that deserve a follow-up or qualification.

Other References

Chestnut, Sheena and Alastair Iain Johnston. “Is China Rising?”  In Global Giants: Is China Changing the Rules of the Game?, edited by Eva Paus, Jon Western, and Penelope Prime, 237–259. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009. (Updated version here.)

Drezner, Daniel W. “Are blogs to blame for Sino-American misperceptions?” Foreign Policy blog, April 17, 2013.

Disclosure

I feel compelled by the norms of journalism, though not the norms of scholarship, to note that Johnston was my professor one semester in grad school. We don’t always agree with our teachers, but they do help form our views, so take this all with whatever grain of salt you like.

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Since 2006, Transpacifica has been a blog, and collection of resources on East Asian politics and international relations in the Asia-Pacific, with a special focus on China, Japan, and the United States. Transpacifica is edited and primarily written by Graham Webster, Research Scholar and Senior Fellow for U.S.–China Relations, Yale Law School China Center. Get in touch, or follow Graham on Twitter.

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