China’s Increasing Assertiveness and Its Implications

March 3, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared on The National Interest (Online) on March 3, 2011.

Beijing has surprised a good many international observers by sending a warship to waters off the Libyan coast. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for that step, since there are some 30,000 Chinese nationals living and working in Libya who may need to be rescued from the chaos in that country. Nevertheless, it is an unprecedented step for the Chinese navy.

One need not go so far as the editors of Investor’s Business Daily and conclude that this move is part of a sophisticated, nefarious geopolitical scheme to replace the United States as the leading stabilizing presence in the Mediterranean. But is does seem to be yet another manifestation of greater Chinese assertiveness on the global stage.

As I discuss in this article, a number of Beijing’s actions over the past year suggest that China will not be content to be a purely commercial power, as so many American policymakers and pundits have hoped. Recent troubling actions include the breathtakingly extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea (which have alarmed Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia), the surprisingly confrontational response to Japan’s seizure of a Chinese fishing vessel near disputed islands in the Sea of Japan, and equally abrasive behavior regarding the long‐​standing border dispute with India.

The systematic modernization of China’s military appears designed to support an increasingly bold foreign policy. According to an article in the February 21 edition of Defense News, a Pentagon analysis concludes that Beijing will have an air force able to project power throughout East Asia by 2020. China’s naval capability is not far behind in that process.

None of this is particularly surprising. Historically, rising great powers seek to attain a leading role in their region, and to some extent, beyond. They also tend to pressure weaker neighbors to make economic, diplomatic, and territorial concessions. China, which now has the world’s second largest economy, is merely replicating that historical pattern.

Beijing’s growing assertiveness does not mean that China will become a malignantly expansionist power like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. It does not mean that the United States and China are destined to become mortal adversaries. But it does signal that Washington is going to find its relationship with Beijing difficult and at times frustrating. Rising great powers tend to be demanding and prickly, and incumbent hegemons are never happy about the inherent challenges they pose. The United States, which has been East Asia’s hegemon since the end of World War II, is bound to have problems adjusting to China’s new geostrategic status.

Dealing with China in the coming decade and beyond will test the limits of both America’s patience and diplomatic skill. But it is a relationship that we must get right. Both the health of the global economy and prospects for global peace are riding on that success.

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