Tag Archives: international relations

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.


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.


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.

'National interests' and dealing with U.S.–China distrust

From Kenneth Lieberthal, a political scientist now at the Brookings Institution, writing in a new report with Chinese scholar Wang Jisi, “Addressing U.S.–China Strategic Distrust“:

Too little understanding of how the Chinese political system actually functions also leads easily to Americans’ viewing Chinese decision making as strategic, coordinated, and disciplined. Disparate conflicting outcomes produced by the relatively uncoordinated initiatives of different ministries, enterprises, and localities are therefore often seen as part of a seamless web of Politbuto Standing Committee policy designed to confuse and deceive American policy makers.

Lieberthal is in a sense offering a think tank–style version of a much older insight that came to be known as the “fragmented authoritarianism” model. Nonetheless, presented here as part of an account of U.S.–China distrust, the message that U.S. leaders misunderstand Chinese political processes is important.

However, U.S. policy makers are not uniquely responsible, according to Lieberthal: “The Chinese system takes particular care to conceal its core political processes—such as selection of top leaders and civil-military interactions—from outside view.” Indeed, the lack of mutual understanding between the U.S. and Chinese governments is at times extraordinary.

I find the rest of the paper interesting, if not especially ground-breaking. Co-written with Wang (each author writing from the perspective of his government, and then co-writing the analysis), the Brookings paper has been touted by The New York Times as a “Rare Glimpse of U.S.-China Frictions.”

One thing that persists through the paper—though it includes some good ideas about potential for increased mutual trust—is that it stubbornly sticks to a rhetoric and vocabulary of “U.S. interests” and “Chinese interests.” This interests framework is terribly limiting: It fails to capture the entanglement and integration of the two countries’ economic, security, environmental, and political lives. Moreover, it buys the realist international relations conceit of self-same nation-states that possess characteristics like power and interests without internal differentiation or fundamental diversity.

As the paper argues, people in both countries would do better to think carefully about precisely who is doing what in the other country. The authors argue for more subtlety while using the language of simplicity. For a Brookings report (as opposed to for instance an academic conference paper), it’s perhaps hard to push a new way of thinking about “our nation,” but consider this:

Who do the so-called U.S. interests really represent, as practiced at the top of government? Has U.S. democracy been successful in aggregating, harmonizing, and empowering the collective interests of all citizens, or is it more likely that certain groups are being served more directly by U.S. foreign policy? How about in China: What precisely does a “Chinese interest” mean? As the report notes, various parts of the government don’t always act in coordination—so why should we expect interests to be more coherent than actions?

This is not a new argument, and indeed Lieberthal’s work helped introduce me to the notion of disaggregating the Chinese state for analysis, but it bears mentioning that even a paper about misperception and distrust falls into the old patterns of oversimplification. If there’s one message I’d like to pass across the trust divide here, it’s that we’re all baffled by the complexity. U.S. leaders are never sure what’s going to happen next at other levels of government. Chinese leaders may have little knowledge about what another department is up to. If top think tank and government thinkers start to acknowledge mutual confusion, perhaps caution will reign.

Does 'grand strategy' still matter?

At NBR, my interview with Carnegie Endowment’s Ashley Tellis recently went live. Perhaps my favorite exchange from the talk was his response to my question about the value of “grand strategy,” which it seems to me can mean different things to different people.

I think Tellis makes a reasonable argument for taking a broad view in policymaking, but I still wonder whether humans can handle the complexity inherent in something like the international system. I will hold for another day my thoughts about the tenuous relationship between assumptions of an international system of sovereign states and the reality of utterly complex political life.

Here’s that exchange. Full interview here.

A lot of people might be skeptical of the idea of grand strategy, thinking that perhaps globalization, regionalization, or a hub-and-spoke network of bilateral ties produces a more fractured reality. Why is grand strategy still an important way to understand and act in world affairs?

What you are saying is that the traditional way of managing grand strategy has become more complicated, and I fully agree. It is no longer sufficient to think of grand strategy as operating entirely in the realm of politics or strategic affairs. Globalization has reminded us that the foundation of politics and strategy is ultimately economics, and that the productive capacity of a state is the motor that provides the resources that enable it to acquire national power. To that degree, grand strategy has to integrate elements that previously might have been neglected.

I think a good grand strategy has always had room for integrating the economic components of state power. Even before globalization, in a world that was relatively autarkic, states had to think about their material capacities and how they stacked up relative to other actors. The biggest change since globalization is that states must manage competitors and adversaries even while remaining deeply intertwined with them economically. This change has not made grand strategy irrelevant; indeed, it has become even more relevant, as well as a lot more complicated.

Can we get anywhere near a “grand strategic” understanding of the world as complexity (or our information about complexity) increases?

Etzioni on wrongheaded US views of India and China

At World Policy Journal, which I have just discovered has an interesting blog, Amitai Etzioni in July argued that mainstream U.S. views on India and China are deeply flawed. When people talk about balancing Chinese power with a democratic ally in India, Etzioni argues, we buy into a long-discredited ideology of international relations.

An excerpt:

The very concept of balancing does not stand close scrutiny. What does it mean for India to balance China? China is developing a major navy and a string of ports of call in the Indian Ocean. India is doing the same. Most likely both are wasting precious resources because in the age of missiles and drones, ships are sitting ducks for low-cost smart bombing. …

About the only reason I can see that some are demonizing China is that some of our agencies need an enemy to justify their forces and budgets, which are still focused on conventional warfare rather than on terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and asymmetric warfare, and to stay the misbegotten course in Afghanistan.

This is far from uncontroversial, but it’s an argument conspicuously missing from the U.S. public debate on China.