Tag Archives: China

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.

Updated: Did the Chinese government really call Diaoyu/Senkaku a 'core interest'?

The Japanese news wire Kyodo News last week reported that the Chinese government called the Senkaku/Diaoyu island issue a ‘core interest.’

“The Diaoyu Islands are about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, it’s China’s core interest,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press conference, using China’s name for the Japanese-administered isles in the East China Sea. …

Hua made the comment after Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told NHK in Tokyo that Chinese officials repeatedly told him during his visit to Beijing earlier in the week that the Senkakus are “one of China’s core interests.”

This report has gained a fair amount of attention. My attempt to follow up on Dempsey’s remarks to NHK is currently coming up dry. Though Google returns a search result on the story, the link is broken, Google’s cache provides nothing, and a search for the full sentence reveals no copies.

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 3.29.29 PM

[UPDATE May 2 11:08 in Beijing—This Japanese-language NHK story includes video of Dempsey saying, “They did use the word “core interests” several times, and I know that’s really their phraseology for issues of sovereign importance.” It is left to the announcer and the written report to make the connection between “core interests” and the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue. My translation of the relevant passage of the print version: “During the interview, Chairman Dempsey said of his meetings with Chinese government officials on his recent trip to China, ‘In the meetings, the Chinese side, on the topic of the Senkaku Islands, used the word “core interests” many times.’ On the topic of Okinawa Prefecture’s Senkaku Islands, China repeatedly clarified that the islands are an non-negotiable ‘core interest.'” What did Dempsey really say in full? I can’t tell.]

Another Japanese source, Asahi Shimbun, has a different phrasing from the Foreign Ministry:

“It is an issue about China’s territory and sovereignty, and therefore a matter of ‘core interest,’ ” said Hua Chunying, spokeswoman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, at a regular news conference.

Meanwhile, the situation from the official Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website brings Hua’s quote into question. The MoFA reports [en] [zh]:

Q: In a recent interview with the Japanese media, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey said that during his visit to China, the Chinese side repeatedly stressed that territorial sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands is part of China’s core interests. Is this China’s official position?

A: China’s Peaceful Development, the white paper released by China’s State Council Information Office in September 2011, made it clear that China firmly safeguards its core national interests, including national sovereignty, national security and territorial integrity.

The Diaoyu Islands issue concerns China’s territorial sovereignty.

问:美军参谋长联席会议主席邓普西日前接受日本媒体采访时称,中方在其访华期间多次强调维护钓鱼岛领土主权是中国核心利益之一。这是中国官方立场吗?

答:中国国务院新闻办公室2011年9月发表的《中国的和平发展》白皮书明确表示,中国坚决维护国家核心利益,包括国家主权,国家安全,领土完整等。

钓鱼岛问题涉及中国领土主权。

A comment signed Iain Johnston (I’ve e-mailed to confirm it’s really him [UPDATE: confirmed.]) on the Japan Times version of the Kyodo story says in part:

… It is possible that the PRC spokesperson strayed a bit from the official position. The official record reflects official policy. This particular formulation — “touches on territorial sovereignty” – probably reflects a dilemma the PRC government faces. It cannot say the Diaoyudao/Senkaku are not a core interest. This would create domestic problems for the regime. But it cannot say explicitly that the islands are a core interest, because this could constrain any future space for negotiation. A critical piece of evidence will be whether or not the PRC drops the demand for negotiations with Japan over the islands. If it does, then this would be consistent with an official declaration that the islands are a core interest. If it continues to demand negotiations, this would be consistent with the official position of not (yet) directly stating the islands are a core interest.

[UPDATE: In comments below, Johnston provides a link to the relevant video of Hua Chunying’s statement, in which she says what the Japanese reports say she said.]

Chinese press seem relatively quiet on this statement, with the links I’m seeing in Weibo conversations leading to articles sourced from Japanese publications. For instance see this Sina News story (in Chinese).

Meanwhile at ChinaFile, Susan Shirk takes the statement as a strong, overt move by the Chinese government.

Last week the Chinese government and military officially declared that the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands constitute a “core interest” of the country. …

To make sure the message came through loud and clear, top military officials first informed General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff who was visiting China. On the next day, it was announced from the podium of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The Diaoyu Islands are about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, it’s China’s core interest,” said Hua Chunying, the ministry spokesperson.

You can be sure that the decision to call the Diaoyu Islands a “core interest” was thoroughly vetted by the key civilian decision-makers—Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and the other five leaders in the CCP Politburo, as well as the People’s Liberation Army leaders. It’s a considered act by a highly insecure CCP leadership willing to engage in international brinksmanship to maintain domestic support.

Shirk argues that this is in contrast to the 2010 incident in which some Chinese representatives reportedly started referring to South China Sea claims as representing a “core interest.” Though top U.S. officials later said the most provocative supposed mention of the South China Sea as a “core interest” had never happened, Shirk views that event as a clear roll-back.

The South China Sea [in 2010] had not been the focus of much attention from the Chinese public; it wasn’t a hot button issue of nationalism like Taiwan or Japan. The impetus for China’s increasingly assertive actions in the region came from the bureaucratic interest groups operating with little effective restraint from the top and using the media to arouse popular excitement. Because the Chinese government had never made a public and authoritative declaration that the South China Sea was a “core interest,” it was able to climb back from the brink without paying any domestic price for formally saying that this claim wasn’t a “core interest.”

Shirk’s comment points above to probably the most useful piece on the “core interests” issue in recent years, from Michael Swaine at the China Leadership Monitor in 2011.

So, what’s going on here?

The official version of the Foreign Ministry statement, following Dempsey’s public statement that he had heard this language, would seem to either represent a careful escalation of rhetoric or, just as likely, an awkward negotiated middle ground after conflicting messages had already been sent. If indeed the messages were coordinated in talks with Dempsey and in the Foreign Ministry press conference, then it would seem reasonable to suspect this represents a well-coordinated, high-level decision. On the other hand, it’s always an open question just how well signals are coordinated between the Foreign Ministry and the military.

Even if it was clear how fully approved the statement is, it is unclear what this means. For now, there we are.

Fighting 'the myth of unitary control' in China cybersecurity politics

My latest for Al Jazeera English asks for more recognition of pluralism and ambiguity when governments and firms accuse “China” or the “Chinese government” of hacking. Check it out!

For fun, my first piece for Al Jazeera fought the notion of a “cyber cold war” between the United States and China. In 2011.

[Crossposted on gwbstr.com]

On Chinese exceptionalism, politics in history, and an interview with Harvard's Mark C. Elliott

The China Story website from Australian National University has a wonderful interview with Mark C. Elliott,* a professor at Harvard University and an authority on the role of Manchu and other ethnic ideas in Chinese history. The full interview is very much worth the read. In dialogue with Elisa Nesossi, Elliott offers perspectives on the continuities of “China” across several thousand years, on competing definitions and understandings of the “Han,” and on the situation of China history scholars in the United States, the People’s Republic, and elsewhere.

Professor Mark C. Elliott

Professor Mark C. Elliott [via]

In the interview, Elliott takes up China’s place in the world and challenges any vision of Chinese exceptionalism (or any exceptionalism). This passage follows a good discussion of the various views of 中华民族 zhonghua minzu, variously translated as the “Chinese nation,” “Chinese ethnicity,” etc. (This is also the term used in Xi Jinping’s new language on the “great renewal of the Chinese nation.”)

What caught my eye for whatever reason is Elliott’s challenge to visions of recent Chinese history founded on isolation or apartness from the rest of the world. I follow the quotation below with some comments on what this means for understanding China and U.S.–China relations.

The idea of China being isolated is also still quite strong, a discourse that is still there as part of the story that people tell themselves – and that the textbooks tell – about history during the Qing, in particular. It is a little bit more complicated, and I think its complexity is recognized by Chinese historians more generally, because of a competing story, a competing discourse, of openness to the world during the Tang. You have the widespread, popular idea of the Silk Road, and of the fact that Chinese culture and cultures of Western Asia mixed in all kinds of ways in Tang Chang’an 長安 and in other places along the Silk Road.

So that China’s isolation is not seen as being eternal, but there is a disconnect, then, between that openness in the Tang and that ‘closing’ of the empire, say, after the Tang – which wasn’t opened again, according to this way of seeing things, until the arrival of the West in the nineteenth century. The fact that half of the silver in the New World ends up in China, coming through Manila from mines in South America and Mexico, is one of a number of powerful arguments to show how connected China really was with the rest of the world. That such a significant proportion of the wealth of the English crown came from the tax on tea, which could only come from China in the eighteenth century, is another – and there are more.

The so-called ‘California School’ of Chinese history, which, like the New Qing History, has received a fair amount of attention in China – people like Bin Wong, Kenneth Pomeranz, Hamashita Takeshi and Jack Goldstone – have argued for China as being very much a part of the world system of trade, from at least the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I think that this is beginning to win over some people, and maybe with time the notion of China’s ‘isolation’ from the rest of the world will begin to fade, too. I see both of these as troublesome because they contribute to a belief in Chinese exceptionalism, that China is somehow different from everywhere else and that its history can’t be understood using models derived by the experience of other people in other places, ever, and that for that reason, whatever criticism anybody might have about China, or whatever argument that they might want to make about China’s past, doesn’t apply, because China is ‘different’.

I come from the United States, and there are a lot of people who like to argue the very same thing for the US! And of course, German historians have long made this kind of an argument, since the nineteenth century, that Germany follows a Sonderweg, its own ‘special path’. I don’t buy exceptionalism in any form, I certainly don’t believe it helps us very much when it comes to understanding the Chinese past. Any sort of habit of thinking that tends towards exceptionalism is one that I would have to take issue with. Both of these things fall into that category, I’m afraid.

This sense of exceptionalism is strong both among some Chinese political commentators and officials, and often among foreign observers of China. I have often found the notion of historical difference or independence useful in discussing the trouble in applying wholesale theories and models of politics and society originally built to understand Europe. But Elliott makes an important point: while there have been periods of less intense interaction with elsewhere in the world, China does not stand apart from world history.

In the passage I highlighted above, Elliott describes how historical ideas slip into political arguments, for instance that some rules may not fit China or that the Chinese government has a right to refuse compromise on a variety of points. (Here is one strong recent expression of frustration with the approach of some Chinese to the world—a valuable piece, but several steps too strong for a comment on one conference.) What Elliott drifts through there reveals the complexity of working to study and explain contemporary China whether abroad or within the region. One must work to collapse unhelpful assumptions (for instance, the idea of the self-same sovereign state) while nonetheless building bridges of comparability (trade, or power, or change in tandem with the world). In contemporary politics, one must fight the idea that the People’s Republic of China is just another country (at very least, it is unusually populous) while assessing the extent of similarities with other political systems (start perhaps by disaggregating the government, regions, or economic sectors).

In the end, I disagree with Elliott on exceptionalism, if only rhetorically. The People’s Republic and historical China are indeed exceptional, as is the United States, but so is any other country or civilization.

Recently in Beijing, Jeffrey Bader, a former top Obama official on East Asia, introduced his talk on U.S.–China relations in the Xi Jinping era and the second Obama administration: “Arguably we are the two most self absorbed—some would say selfish—countries on the planet.”[1] Perhaps the challenge for people on both sides of the Pacific is to recognize that their enormous roles in the world do not equate to a moral centrality.

*Disclosure: I took a class from Elliott during my master’s studies.
[1] From my notes at “U.S.-China Relations under Barack Obama and Xi Jinping,” Brookings-Tsinghua Center, November 29, 2012

What it means when we say NYT is 'blocked in China'

Shanghaiist has just posted a fairly snarky story claiming, as it summarizes well in the headline, that “The New York Times might or might not be blocked in China (but probably isn’t).” I think they’re off the mark.

The writer’s claim that it seems to work fine for Shanghaiist staff most of the time is a weak explanation of what’s going on, conflicts with my experience and those of many on Twitter, and results in an uninformative and dismissive post on a usually great site. [UPDATE 19:23 — The writer, James Griffiths, rightfully points out in this Twitter thread that he refers to greatfirewallofchina.org as well as Shanghaiist staff. I still question the value of that data when it is quickly refuted by experience, but noted for the record.]

(Those interested in question of why it might be blocked probably already know. If not, check Twitter or the site itself for the top China story.)

Blocking a site is not a national-level switch. The filtering can be done at various points of transit for the information, either at the local ISP level or at other nodes up to and including the point of transit across the Chinese border. But on my connection in Beijing, the site doesn’t load. All direct evidence I’m offering is from a Unicom household connection in Dongcheng, Beijing.

A block can be achieved by deleting or interfering with a DNS listing. DNS is the directory the network uses to translate a URL into a numerical address of the format that the internet uses. That doesn’t seem to be happening from my connection, but I have a setting that attempts to skip over the local DNS servers and instead retrieves information from Google. So, some may be blocked this way.

A block can be achieved by terminating the connection when a chosen keyword passes through the connection. The name of the leader featured today by the NYT does not seem to be blocked, because his English Wikipedia page is loading just fine (from here). His Chinese name, on the other hand, might be blocked, because I get a “connection reset” error.

The “connection reset” error usually indicates a machine somewhere along the path of the connection has detected an unwanted transmission. Using the protocols that run the internet, this intermediary can then send an error message to both the sending server (say Wikipedia or a newspaper) and to the receiver (my little laptop) saying, “Hey, something’s wrong here! Let’s reset!” The result is that you don’t get your content.

The “connection reset” error is what I’m getting for NYT. This means that somewhere in my transmission chain, it’s most likely that there is a keyword filter being triggered. For practical purposes, this means that even non-related stories on that site are inaccessible. This could be because the newspaper itself is a keyword. It could be triggered by a combination of keywords. It could be because the Chinese leader’s name is part of the code of the English page. Or it could be something else entirely.

It makes no sense to say something is “blocked in China” at an early stage. Instead, we can say it is blocked (or better yet “inaccessible”) from a given connection. And without my VPN (indeed, without the one of two VPNs I use that still works), the NYT is at this point blocked on my connection.

I’m not sure what the people at greatfirewallofchina.org are doing. Shanghaiist notes that they report the site still accessible. But the crowdsourced censorship monitor Herdict finds that a lot more reports of NYT being inaccessible from China are coming in. It would be unfortunate if people got the impression that the Times was crying wolf, when in actuality the picture is more complicated than either the Times or Shanghaiist let on.

[UPDATE 19.45 (last before signing off for the evening)

A few things of note have been pointed out to me.

  • The Times claims to have actually tested where they were inaccessible and found 31 cities experienced a trouble: “By 7 a.m. Friday in China, access to both the English- and Chinese-language Web sites of The Times was blocked from all 31 cities in mainland China tested.”
  • It’s been pointed out a few times that the specific argument that traffic due to a report of censorship overwhelming the servers just doesn’t hold water. Aside from the fact that the paper handles things like the World Series just fine, the content is still OK via VPN, which would not help if the server was down.
  • https://en.greatfire.org/ is another site like Herdict, apparently focused on China only.
  • OK, it’s Halloween weekend, and it’s time to go!]

Further reading (I used to write about this a lot):