During the past two years, and particularly since China’s quick and strong recovery from the global recession, the long-discussed topic of China’s rise has come to be dominated by a new theme among both Chinese and foreign observers: The image of the supposedly cautious, low-profile, responsibility-shirking, free-riding Beijing of the past giving way to one of a more confident, assertive (some say arrogant), anti–status quo power that is pushing back against the West, promoting its own alternative (i.e., restrictive or exclusionary) norms and policies in many areas, and generally seeking to test the leadership capacity of the United States. This new image has prompted many Western pundits to assert that the Chinese are finally “revealing their true colors.” And some believe that the Chinese, in the face of an apparently faltering Western democratic capitalist model, and with the confidence provided by continued high growth rates and massive foreign exchange reserves, are now challenging American leadership of the global system.

Such observations are causing some U.S. politicians, military officials, and members of the business community to question whether China remains committed to the two elements that have together stood for over three decades as the hallmarks of the reform era: maintenance of cooperative relations with the West and a basic reliance on the open, freemarket system. If they conclude that China is transitioning to a less cooperative, more assertive, fundamentally revisionist, and in many ways anti-Western approach to vital global and bilateral issues, the repercussions for the international system, and Sino-U.S. relations in particular, could be enormous.

This essay examines the features of the discussion in the West, and among many Chinese, regarding the notion of a more assertive China. It attempts to answer several questions: How is assertiveness defined or understood among Western and Chinese observers? What are the main manifestations or expressions of Chinese assertiveness? What is driving such assertiveness, in the views of both Western and Chinese observers? What are the lines of debate over this issue in China and the West, if any? What are the perceived implications of Chinese assertiveness for the future of the international system and Sino-Western relations? The conclusion provides some general observations regarding the significance of this issue for the future.