Among both casual observers and experts alike, the single most dominant theme in Sino-U.S. relations of the past year or more has been the emergence of a more “assertive China.” In CLM [China Leadership Monitor] 32, we examined how both Chinese and outside observers look at China’s growing assertiveness on the international stage, that is, the purely perceptual dimensions of the issue. In this and several subsequent CLMs, we intend to assess whether, to what extent, and in what manner, the Chinese government is becoming more assertive in several major areas of relevance to the United States: First, in defining and promoting the concept of “core interests”; second, with regard to U.S. political and military behavior along China’s maritime periphery; third, concerning a variety of economic, trade, and finance issues, from so-called indigenous innovation to global standards regarding reserve currencies; and fourth, with regard to several issues related to international security, from counter-proliferation to climate change.

In each of these four areas, we shall to varying degrees attempt to answer several basic questions regarding Chinese assertiveness that build on those addressed in CLM 32: In what ways are Chinese leaders becoming more assertive, employing what methods, and to what apparent ends? Is Chinese assertiveness a “new” and highly significant phenomenon for U.S. interests, and if so, in what manner? What misconceptions, if any, exist about China’s assertiveness? What internal and external forces are driving China’s assertive behavior? In particular, is Chinese assertiveness associated with particular interest groups or factions within Chinese state and society? How is China’s assertiveness evolving in response to both inside and outside pressures? And finally, what do the answers to the foregoing questions tell us about the likely future direction and strength of China’s assertiveness over the next several years?

What Kind of Assertive Behavior?

As indicated in CLM 32, China’s assertiveness means different things to different people. As a result, the concept, in describing Chinese behavior, is somewhat vague and ambiguous, potentially encompassing everything from attempts to play a more active role in a wide variety of international regimes, to deliberate efforts to alter basic international norms and challenge the fundamental national interests or policies of the United States. In addition, there are many forms of assertiveness, from mere verbal statements or comments, to concerted official actions that appear designed to intimidate or even to force other nations or foreign entities to change their behavior. As this typology suggests, some forms of Chinese assertiveness are probably beneficial to the workings of the international system and U.S. interests while others are not. Indeed, U.S. officials welcome a more active, engaged China that seeks both to strengthen and to shape international institutions and norms in ways that advance prosperity, stability, and the peaceful resolution of problems. They presumably do not welcome a China that desires or appears to do otherwise.

In addition, not all indications of Chinese assertiveness (whether “good” or “bad” for the United States and other Western powers) are sanctioned or supported by the Chinese government. Indeed, as we have seen in CLM 32, many unofficial Chinese observers and pundits express or advocate various levels and types of assertiveness that are not reflected in official Chinese statements or documents.

Thus, any assessment of Chinese assertiveness must distinguish between official and unofficial actions or utterances, productive or creative assertiveness (what one might call “positive activism”) and confrontational, destabilizing, or threatening (from a Western or U.S. perspective) assertiveness. This essay, and those that follow, focuses primarily on identifying, measuring, and assessing official or governmental forms of negative or potentially threatening Chinese assertiveness, given its clear significance for future Sino- American relations and the obvious attention that it has received among outside observers.