Written by Xiaoyu Pu.

Largely abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s low-profile approach in global affairs, Xi Jinping has been pursuing more pro-active diplomacy. In 2013, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held a major conference on China’s regional diplomacy. Since then, Beijing has initiated major programs on regional cooperation, and has hosted various high-profile multilateral meetings. Most recently Xi Jinping has emerged from the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) meeting in Beijing as a strong world leader. Unlike his predecessor Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping has strengthened coordination among foreign agencies, and he plays a much more dominant role in the execution of China’s foreign policy. How do we understand the style of Xi Jinping’s regional diplomacy? What are the driving factors and implications of the recent “assertive turn” in China’s diplomacy?

Charm Offensive 2.0

In the late 1990s, China took a responsible role by maintaining the value of Renminbi (RMB) during the Asian financial crisis, and providing assistance to stricken Asian neighbours. Widely praised by the international community, Beijing’s regional diplomacy after the Asian financial crisis was the first wave of a “charm offensive.” The trend continues during Xi Jiping’s new administration, and thus Xi’s regional diplomacy might be viewed as China’s “charm offensive 2.0.”

At the CCP conference on regional diplomacy in 2013, Xi Jinping identified a four-part philosophy to guide diplomacy toward surrounding countries, centering on efforts to convey or realize amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness. Regarding economic diplomacy, China proposes to build One Belt and One Road (yidai yilu), which refers to the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road.” These concepts were put forward by President Xi Jinping during his visit to Central Asia and Southeast Asia respectively in 2013. The purpose of the initiative is to strengthen regional economic cooperation, and in the process, Beijing hope to increase its diplomatic influence.

Regarding the regional security order, speaking at a summit of the Conference on Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in May 2014, Xi outlined his thoughts on the future of Asian security. Beijing has identified CICA as a key platform from which to broadcast a reassuring message for a regional audience. Xi’s CICA address fits into an attempt by Beijing to re-energize its “charm offensive” diplomacy.

Tough Image

While Beijing tries to build a benign image, the international community increasingly views China as a more assertive power. As China seeks to defend what it views as its territorial and maritime interests, it might increase the insecurity of its neighbours, who grow increasingly wary of China’s long-term intentions. That said, we should not overestimate the degree of change in China’s assertiveness.

Beijing’s “tough image” in regional diplomacy is not new. In history, China used coercive diplomacy to achieve its goals in several cases. In territorial disputes, Beijing has often implemented a calculus of signals. From the Sino-India border conflict to the Sino-Vietnamese war, China would first deter an adversary by threatening the use of military force; if deterrence failed, China tried to justify its use of military force as being defensive.

In recent years, Beijing has used various tactics to signal its resolve. China does not change its policy regarding the disputed territories. China appears to be more assertive largely because it has more capabilities to defend its existing claims. Beijing’s official statements have often emphasized that China should safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity. At the CCP meeting in 2013, Xi Jinping mentioned the need for China to safeguard “national sovereignty, security, and development interests” as part of periphery diplomacy. Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated in March 2014, “We will never bully smaller countries, yet we will never accept unreasonable demands from smaller countries.” Recently Chinese military leaders and their US counterparts exchanged tough talk openly. The tough talk of Chinese military leaders aims to clarify China’s resolve.

China also takes concrete actions to strengthen its territorial and maritime claims. Beijing is attempting to strengthen its claims incrementally, without making a move dramatic enough to justify a major response by others. For instance, in territorial disputes such as the South China Sea or the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, China has strengthened its maritime capabilities and has sent more ships and airplanes into those regions.

Domestic politics has contributed to the emergence of Beijing’s tough image. China’s assertiveness could be a result of a mix of confidence on the international stage and insecurity at home. Enjoying an inflated sense of empowerment after global financial crisis, and terrified of an uncertain future due to social tensions at home, the CCP has become more willing to play to the popular nationalist card. By taking a nationalistic tone in diplomacy, Xi Jinping aims to boost his personal authority as well as CCP’s legitimacy within China.

Above all, Xi Jinping is projecting two faces in regional diplomacy. China tries to reassure regional countries about its benign intentions through deepening economic and diplomatic cooperation. China also wants to maintain a tough image so that it will not lose bargaining leverage in disputes. A nationalistic foreign policy also serves Xi Jinping’s domestic political agenda. In statecraft, deterrence and reassurance might be the two sides of the same coin. Beijing’s proactive economic diplomacy might be largely regarded as part of the charm offensive diplomacy; however, there is a hidden “coercive” element in economic statecraft. From Beijing’s perspective, economic interdependence could bind its neighbours in a web of incentives that increase their reliance on China. On the other hand, while the “coercive” aspect of China appears to be threatening, it should be noted that coercive diplomacy could help clarify China’s resolve. As two American strategists James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon emphasize, “The key to stable U.S.-Chinese relations over the long term is for each side to be clear about its true redlines…it involves demonstrating both the will and the capability to make good on threats.”

An assertive China under Xi Jinping poses challenges for regional order, and a more serious challenge is not just China’s assertive nationalism, but competing versions of nationalism from different countries. That said, China under Xi Jinping’s leadership will also provide unprecedented opportunities for international cooperation. For years, China’s fragmented politics and interest groups have often hijacked its reform agenda, and this fragmentation has also hindered international cooperation. As a strong leader, Xi Jinping seems to have greater capacity to overcome the problem of domestic fragmentation. Recently the United States and China signed several important agreements, including the landmark climate change agreement. This might indicate that Xi Jinping is more willing and capable to help solve global problems. In 1972, Chairman Mao said he preferred to bargain a deal with the American “rightist” leader President Richard Nixon. Maybe the leaders in Asia and the western democracies will eventually find reasons to get along with an assertive Chinese leader such as Xi Jinping.

Xiaoyu Pu is an assistant professor of political science, University of Nevada. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and rising powers in international relations. His twitter is @pu_xiaoyu. Image credit: CC Global Panorama/Flickr.