“For Our Enemies, We Have Shotguns”: Explaining China’s New Assertiveness
China’s ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, has a colorful turn of phrase to describe his country’s approach to foreign policy: “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns.” The “enemies” he has attacked in the last two years encompass a bewilderingly expansive range of media and political targets, one of the contributory factors behind China’s rapidly deteriorating reputation in Sweden, alongside the Chinese government’s unwillingness to release a Swedish bookseller that it kidnapped. His belligerent behavior has been the subject of some bemusement in Stockholm: Why would Beijing choose so comprehensively to alienate a country that should, given its free-trading tradition, leading technology sector, and unusually successful investment ties with China, be one of its closest European partners?
In recent months, it has seemed like much of the world has been subjected to the same treatment, eliciting similar questions about why Beijing should engage in such self-defeating behavior. By any measure, China’s recent foreign policy has displayed an astonishing level of assertiveness. That Beijing has shed its prior inhibitions in the midst of a devastating global health and economic crisis for which the Chinese leadership itself bears culpability, and a still-fragile economic situation in China itself makes it all the more remarkable.
For those who have observed this pattern of behavior, the reasons remain confounding. Four possible explanations suggest themselves, based on whether Beijing perceives this as a new era in its foreign policy or a temporary phase, and whether its actions are motivated by a sense of strength or vulnerability. Analyzing whether its new foreign policy reflects temporary opportunism, hubris, crisis management, or deeper insecurity is helpful in discerning whether Beijing will ultimately look to wind back its aggressive posture or if there is greater escalation to come. Yet in practice, the most effective policy responses will look very similar, regardless of China’s intentions.
Intensifying Assertiveness on a Global Scale
The most dramatic developments in China’s hardening attitude have been closest to home. On May 22, the National People’s Congress approved a national security law for Hong Kong, which came into force on July 1, undermining Beijing’s treaty commitment to “one country, two systems.” Its breadth and extra-territorial scope surprised even the most pessimistic experts. A major mobilization by the People’s Liberation Army along the disputed border with India in April and May led to clashes and a prolonged military stand-off. Further violence during a de-escalation process on June 15 resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops. One month later, Chinese officials and media also made claims to a sizeable tract of territory in Bhutan, an area that had not featured in previous border negotiations.
Treaty allies of the United States have not been spared. In June, the Australian government revealed a sustained cyber attack by China against government agencies, infrastructure, and businesses. This came after Canberra passed laws to increase oversight on foreign lobbying and protect its political system from external interference (moves driven by specific Chinese activity), and disqualified Chinese telecom companies from acting as suppliers for 5G contracts. Beijing also imposed trade curbs on Australia as explicit retaliation for its calls for an independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other fronts — including the South and East China Seas, and relations with Taiwan — have witnessed continued or worsening frictions, with the pandemic inducing not even a short period of restraint on China’s part. In mid-April, a Chinese vessel tagged a Malaysian drill ship in disputed waters off of Borneo, resulting in a standoff that eventually involved five countries. One month later, another Chinese vessel sank a Vietnamese fishing boat off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Military activity around islands disputed with Japan has picked up, despite the prior thaw in relations between Asia’s two largest economies. Several airspace violations by Chinese aircraft were also reported over Taiwan, and the island experienced sustained Chinese disinformation campaigns throughout its recent elections. China also named a number of geographic features in the South China Sea in April and the East China Sea in June, as part of its expansive territorial claims.
Yet the sheer global sweep of China’s diplomatic assertiveness and belligerent economic threats in the midst of a continuing pandemic has also been striking. The unprecedented scale of China’s open criticism of American domestic affairs and conspiracy-theorizing about U.S. origins for the virus could be explained away in the context of worsening bilateral tensions. But virtually every other major power has been caught up in the attacks, too. In Brazil, Chinese diplomats have launched broadsides against elected officials, including the son of President Jair Bolsonaro. The propaganda, disinformation, and written and verbal attacks from Chinese officials in Europe have led to the summoning of the Chinese ambassador in France, pushback against China’s “aggressive” diplomacy from the E.U.’s top foreign policy official, and plummeting views of China among European publics. The United Kingdom has been warned that it will “bear the consequences” over its plans to curtail Huawei’s role in its 5G networks, with barely veiled suggestions that this will involve economic repercussions for U.K. companies. China’s relations with Canada were already strained following its arrest of prominent Chinese businesswoman Meng Wanzhou and Beijing’s retaliatory detention of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. In June, they were formally charged with espionage, as Chinese officials openly tied the case to demands for Meng’s release.
These developments occurred even as China began to face pushback for its actions. Recent moves on the part of the United States, such as its revocation of Hong Kong’s special status, sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and hardened South China Sea policy have been partly conditioned by Chinese actions and Sino-American dynamics during the pandemic. Yet it is the long list of China’s deteriorating relationships elsewhere that arguably represents the greater setback. Six months ago, for example, China still had a chance to establish itself in pole position on its emerging technology ties with the United Kingdom and India. But subsequent measures concerning 5G telecommunications and China-based apps by London and New Delhi respectively make that far less likely today, reflecting a sea-change in the debates about China in both countries.
Scrutiny concerning China’s growing leadership role in multilateral organizations has intensified, as have countervailing coalitions in these bodies. Plans for closer cooperation among democracies on issues ranging from supply chains to advanced technologies have been given considerable new momentum. So have plans for formats ranging from the D-10 (a proposed group of ten democracies to cooperate on 5G technologies and other economic security issues) to the new E.U.-U.S. dialogue on dealing with the China challenge. While some of these dynamics were already underway even before the pandemic, China’s recent behavior has accelerated them considerably.
Four Possible Explanations
Although there are proximate causes behind each of the cases, and Chinese foreign policy was already moving in a more adversarial direction, the speed and breadth of the shifts in recent months has gone beyond what even the wariest analysts had predicted. It represents a qualitative shift not just from the phase of Chinese assertiveness that we can date to the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, but the recent phase that we have seen under Xi Jinping’s leadership.
There are a few potential theories as to what exactly has changed in China’s foreign policy — they could be considered opportunistic assertiveness, imperious assertiveness, reactive assertiveness, and insecure assertiveness. The two principal questions are whether China’s leadership perceives this to be a period of vulnerability or an opportunity to expand its power, and whether it is seen as temporary or a lasting strategic reality. For the rest of the world, all of the potential answers are concerning. If Beijing is now prone to lashing out in all directions as the result of political insecurity, this does not necessarily make China any easier to deal with than if it results from a hubristic view of its power position. But it will have ramifications for whether Beijing subsequently seeks to stabilize its relations with other powers again, and how it is likely to respond to concerted collective attempts at pushback.
A first explanation could be considered “opportunistic assertiveness.” Simply put, Beijing is taking advantage of political and economic weaknesses and distractions in the rest of the world, and believes that the U.S.-Chinese relationship under the Trump administration cannot get much worse anyway. It sees the phase following China’s recovery from the pandemic, the struggles elsewhere, and the potential for a partial improvement of relations with the United States after the elections in November as representing a short window of opportunity. This period — when the world is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences — offers a moment to make as many gains as possible and get any contentious moves (such as the National Security Law) out of the way before the U.S. presidential election in November. If Chinese policymakers are making such a calculation, they appear willing to risk that the reputational damage that China suffers is not so deep or long-lasting that it cannot be reversed. The growing bipartisan consensus around China in the United States counts against this theory, and it does a weaker job of explaining cases of Chinese assertiveness where the United States does not have alliance commitments (such as with Brazil or India). But it could still reflect the U.S.-centric prism through which Beijing often sees its global position and the attribution of current tension levels to unique features of the Trump presidency.
A second possibility, implying a lasting change rather than a temporary burst of opportunism, might be considered “imperious assertiveness.” China’s leaders have internalized their own success to an inordinate degree. They genuinely believe that China now offers a viable alternative to the United States as a global power and that any criticism is unjustified or hypocritical. The lackluster response by the Western world — specifically the United States and parts of Europe — to COVID-19 stands in contrast to Asian technocratic superiority and the Chinese Communist Party’s capacity to lead the country’s bounce-back from the crisis, further reinforcing this belief. As much as hubris, this could be driven by a changed assessment of the new geopolitical context: There is a “new Cold War” with the United States and its allies, and Chinese officials believe it is not just prepared, but well-positioned to prevail, especially given current U.S. struggles with polarized politics, weakened economic growth, and continued failure to get the pandemic under control. Some critics in China have gently warned against the adverse consequences of this approach (“destroying yourself through excessive praise”), particularly when China’s own challenges — from demographics to debt — remain considerable. Additionally, if the United States and the West are China’s major strategic and ideological competitors, it would still make sense to undercut any moves towards counterbalancing rather than alienating so many U.S. partners and allies simultaneously. In contrast to prior years, there is scant evidence of this. But it may reflect both overconfidence and a belief that the inducements of China’s economic power and its heightened capacity for coercion are sufficient to prevent coalitions from forming.
A third theory implies “reactive assertiveness,” a term first coined by the International Crisis Group to describe China’s behavior in the South China Sea. In the present context, it suggests an escalatory response to the immediate economic, reputational, security, and political challenges China faces through the pandemic and its aftermath. Beijing hopes it can push back against criticism, deter others, achieve whatever advances are possible under the circumstances, and ease up again when the global health and economic situation has somewhat normalized. As went the South China Sea, where China has sought to “use perceived provocations as a chance to change the status quo in its favor — all the while insisting the other party started the trouble” — so now goes almost every other issue. This is in part opportunistic. But the application of the same playbook across multiple policy areas and geographies during this phase reflects the sheer range of fronts that China sees opening up during this period.
A final possibility — implying concern that China and the Chinese Communist Party are entering an extended period of vulnerability — is “insecure assertiveness.” China’s actions arise not out of a sense of strength, but of weakness, and a belief that its threat environment has changed in a more fundamentally dangerous way. In this account, the internal and external pressures facing the Chinese Communist Party over its handling of the pandemic, and the worsening U.S.-Chinese relationship, have led it to lash out in multiple directions against what it perceives as attacks from all sides. Beijing is steeling itself for a long battle. It sees the pandemic as accelerating the competitive and confrontational dynamics that were already underway and has pessimistically decided to treat not just U.S. allies but partners such as India as being in the same camp. It may believe that coercive means are now the only way to deter new countervailing coalitions from forming. Given that views of China among international publics have become so critical, and Beijing’s unwillingness to make economic reforms means that it can no longer count on its traditional political support in the international business community, China may now just be resigned to dealing with a more hostile context. Beijing’s approach is also more openly ideological, seeing the need not just to defend its own system publicly but to unleash open criticism of “western democracy” through its officials and propaganda machinery rather than confining this language to internal Party documents and speeches.
In both latter theories — reactive and insecure assertiveness — Beijing believes it is responding to moves by others, such as: U.S. trade and technological restrictions, Australia’s criticism of political interference, the United Kingdom’s involvement in Hong Kong, Japan’s “remilitarization,” India’s border infrastructure development, Southeast Asia’s resource extraction in the South China Sea, Taiwan’s pro-independence tilt, or Canada’s detention of a Chinese citizen. Never mind that all of these countries see their own actions as legitimate responses to China’s authoritarian turn, unfair economic practices, or territorial revisionism. In some sense, this would be even more worrisome than hubris or a short-term push for advantage. If Beijing perceives itself as the aggrieved actor, it is even less likely to change course.
“No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care”
It is possible that some combination of the above is at play: China is displaying imperiousness, opportunism, reactiveness, and insecurity all at once. Xi Jinping himself has certainly exhibited all of these traits. The declining quality of leadership under a system that has become ever-more centered around him may be partly responsible for the series of continuing missteps, a product of less deliberation, alternative viewpoints being shut down, and anticipation of leadership preferences by lower-level officials. When confronting resistance abroad, a rigid Chinese foreign policy hierarchy is no longer nimble enough to change tack, and has opted instead to double down on its aggressive approach, notwithstanding limited efforts by Chinese diplomats to place a floor under the rapidly deteriorating U.S.-Chinese relationship. None of these explanations are particularly reassuring: Whatever the balance of factors, Beijing risks some combination of severe reputational damage, premature overreach, systematic overreaction, or self-fulfilling prophecy.
The ramifications for Beijing go well beyond any individual relationship. The collective economic, financial, military, diplomatic and technological resources that can be marshaled by the countries that China has decided to confront continue to dwarf those that Beijing can muster. While the informal process of coalition-building on China remains challenging, it has been made a great deal more straightforward by recent Chinese actions.
Many of the long-term measures that the like-minded democracies — the United States, Europe, Japan, India, Australia, and parts of Southeast Asia among many others — are considering or already pursuing are not contingent on which considerations are driving China’s assertiveness. Putting in place the means to compete more effectively, ensure the resilience of their economies and democracies, reduce China’s capacity for coercion, and establish new structures of mutual cooperation will make sense regardless of the deliberations in Zhongnanhai. These include new defensive economic instruments, measures to reduce excessive dependency on China, rebalancing the level of openness of their economies and societies to Chinese investments and influence activities, strengthening support to third countries in areas such as infrastructure finance, closer coordination in multilateral bodies, intensified security cooperation across multiple domains, and various ambitious plans for new trade, technology, data, standards, and industrial policy partnerships. In their most expansive forms, these would amount to a major reshaping of the strategic landscape in which China operates. In their more limited forms, they are already resulting in a less permissive environment for Beijing to pursue its economic, security, and political goals.
Yet many of the decisions facing these countries also involve calculations about immediate issues with China — border incursions, threats of economic punishment, Hong Kong’s status — that hinge more directly on the nature of the Chinese leadership’s current outlook. If Beijing is in an insecure, defensive mode, one argument would be that the best course of action is to find ways to ease tensions. But this would evidently be the worst path to pursue if other explanations of its behavior hold true, either confirming for China the most hubristic assessment of its own position or encouraging even bolder acts of adventurism. It would also do little good if Beijing’s insecurity has already led it to conclude that it is now in an all-out struggle.
The alternative hypothesis — that carefully treading around the Chinese government’s sensitivities during a period in which it faces intense pressure will elicit a cooler-headed approach — has also been tested out to bruising effect. Indeed, previous governments in the United States, India, and Japan attempted to play down differences to no avail. More recently, the shock in Europe over China’s behavior resulted not just from Beijing’s actions, but from the fact that they followed precisely such an effort on the part of European leaders to provide discreet support to China at the peak of its internal crisis. This was met, in Gui’s words, with shotguns.
Demonstrating to China’s leadership that a wider de-escalation is preferable will instead require others to raise the costs of adverse Chinese behavior and signal further repercussions if Beijing continues down its current path. Initially this could range from symbolic moves, such as suspensions of high-level meetings with China and the launch of new processes among democracies openly focused on China policy coordination, to targeted measures against Chinese Communist Party officials, and a significant tightening of dual-use equipment sales. There is no guarantee that tougher measures will moderate Beijing’s approach — it is entirely possible that China is simply set on its new trajectory, thinking either that it will pay off in the end or that there is no alternative option. But the Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly shown the pragmatic capacity to correct course when absolutely necessary. This is the moment for collective efforts to sharpen that choice.
Andrew Small is a senior transatlantic fellow with the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and an associate senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He previously worked as the director of the Foreign Policy Centre’s Beijing office and was a visiting fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Dhruva Jaishankar is director of the U.S. Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia. He previously worked at Brookings India, the German Marshall Fund, and the Brookings Institution.