Framing China’s actions: From ‘assertive’ to ‘aggressive’

US-led Western rhetoric has not been friendly to China, with “assertive” being the operative word. However, at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, that term was “upgraded” to “aggressive”, prompting a strong response from China. Is this portrayal deserved and are tensions likely to persist in the region? What should the ASEAN countries’ response be?
China's State Councilor and Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe walks to attend a bilateral meeting with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, 10 June 2022. (Caroline Chia/Reuters)
China's State Councilor and Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe walks to attend a bilateral meeting with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, 10 June 2022. (Caroline Chia/Reuters)

For a long time, whenever Western media and politicians criticised China, they would use the word “assertive”. Singapore’s English-language media followed suit, especially when talking about China’s actions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. The word clearly has negative connotations, but some academics and media in China have given it a positive spin by translating it as “confident” (自信). Until today, it seems that the Chinese media has yet to settle on a standard translation for the term.

What’s in a word

English-Chinese dictionaries define “assertive” as “over-confident” and “dogmatic”, but these do not bring out the full meaning of the word. Even in English, there is no clear definition of what the word means when referring to China’s actions or diplomatic quality. An “increasingly assertive China”, “China’s assertiveness”, “China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea” — such phrases certainly do not mean confidence.

The word “assertive” may not denote bullying, pushing others or being autocratic, but when used in certain contexts, carry a hint of these meanings. Or, maybe it is what Chinese netizens like to talk about — baqi (霸气, meaning confident and domineering). To put it simply, the assertiveness that Westerners speak of generally refers to China’s show of strength following its rise. China no longer keeps a low profile but is displaying its capabilities — Westerners are beginning to feel threatened.

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Chinese delegates listen to a virtual special address by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, 11 June 2022. (Caroline Chia/Reuters)

European academic Richard Turcsanyi conducted an interesting study in which an assertive action is defined as one in which China actively pursues its interests and acts boldly toward achieving its goals, even if they contradict the interests of other actors. In addition, an assertive action by China must be significantly different from both the actions of other countries and previous norms.

However, the criticisms of the US and other countries of China’s assertiveness do not carry the nuance of it being reactive — it just means that China is being arrogant.

Turcsanyi also proposed the concept of “reactive assertiveness”, or the idea that China’s actions may be prompted by external factors, such as China’s seemingly strong response to the arbitral tribunal ruling in 2016 of the arbitral proceedings instituted by the Philippines. Another example is China’s response to former US President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” in view of the deteriorating regional geopolitical situation.

Escalation from ‘assertive’ to ‘aggressive’

However, the criticisms of the US and other countries of China’s assertiveness do not carry the nuance of it being reactive — it just means that China is being arrogant.

China’s assertiveness was certainly a hot topic at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue. Notably, the US escalated “assertive” to “aggressive”, making it clear that it thinks China will encroach on others and is capable of attacking or invading.

Austin did not say “China”, but “PRC” — this purposeful little touch had its significance.

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US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks at the First Plenary Session of the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, 11 June 2022. (Caroline Chia/Reuters)

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin used the word “aggressive” in his speech, affirming the US’s support for its allies and partners including Taiwan. The translation on the VOA Chinese website was “aggressive” (咄咄逼人), and it quoted Austin as saying, “That’s especially important as the PRC adopts a more coercive and aggressive approach to its territorial claims.”

Sputnik’s Chinese translation referred to an approach that “compels” (强制性) or is “invasive” (侵略性), while some media in China used “coercive” and “provocative” (挑衅性). Lianhe Zaobao reported it as “coercive” and “invasive”. Austin did not say “China”, but “PRC” — this purposeful little touch had its significance.

It is very clear that what the US is trying hard to highlight is the “China threat”, which justifies the security and military alliances and arrangements between the US and other countries, such as the Quad and AUKUS. While Austin said the US does not seek a new Cold War or an Asian NATO, to China, the US’s hidden intentions have been revealed.

Right after Austin spoke, Lieutenant General Zhang Zhenzhong, vice-chief of the Joint Staff Department of China's Central Military Commission, criticised the US Indo-Pacific strategy for being aimed at creating divisions to maintain US hegemony. In his view, the strategy is designed to trap the Asia-Pacific region into a geopolitical game and confrontation as the US tries to form a small circle by roping in some countries to incite against others.

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China's Defence Minister Wei Fenghe salutes from the podium at the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on 12 June 2022. (Roslan Rahman/AFP)

The next day, China's State Councillor and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe angrily called the Indo-Pacific strategy an attempt to build an exclusive small group to hijack countries in the region to target a specific country, and a strategy to create conflict and confrontation to contain and encircle others, under the banner of freedom and openness.

Engagement or confrontation

Some analysts in US foreign policy and strategy think tanks advocate engaging with China and promoting co-prosperity and coexistence. Others support confrontation, military, economic and trade decoupling, as well as containment. While arguments for engagement have lost favour and the latter methods vary, the basic consensus is that China should not be allowed to become a regional hegemon, let alone surpass the US in any aspect to become the world’s most powerful country. The various policies adopted by the Biden administration prove this point — it is doing everything possible to suppress China’s continued rise.

American diplomats and military officials in the establishment will never — and are also unwilling to — believe China because this does not align with their own perceptions and interests.

While Beijing has said time and again that it will “never seek hegemony, expansion or sphere of influence” no matter how strong its economy becomes, and that it “will not repeat the old path in which a strong power would surely seek hegemony” (this was again emphasised in Wei’s speech), American diplomats and military officials in the establishment will never — and are also unwilling to — believe China because this does not align with their own perceptions and interests. If the US continues to engage China, it would lose the effigy of a strong enemy. The military-industrial complex and other interest groups would also not be able to exploit the global arms market.

Pedestrians near the Bund in Shanghai, China, on 1 June 2022. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
Pedestrians near the Bund in Shanghai, China, on 1 June 2022. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

In other words, in the Asia-Pacific and the so-called Indo-Pacific region, China-US rivalry is unlikely to ease up any time soon, as seen by the way the two countries have not been able to cooperate on the Covid-19 pandemic, a matter of global health and safety. Even after one million people died of Covid-19 in the US, the country remained unmoved.

If the US continues to stir the pot in the region, especially if it continues to play with fire over Taiwan and challenge Beijing’s red lines, things could get dangerous. In fact, it would only be making matters worse if other parties, like Australia and Canada, imprudently “sent their military jets for inflammatory close-in reconnaissance” near China’s airspace.

Amid great power competition, it is also true that there exist many Asia-Pacific issues that can be manipulated by the US to China’s disadvantage, mainly because the US participates from afar, and would not have any issues with regional countries due to geography. Also, it benefits from having a heavy military presence in Japan and South Korea.

China’s predicament and ASEAN’s role

In contrast, China is a neighbour of many countries in the region and has territorial disputes in the South China Sea with several ASEAN countries, not to mention a border dispute with India and conflict with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. These issues have been festering for a long time and remain unresolved. Even its negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea with ASEAN countries have been delayed. These are all detrimental to building better mutual trust between China and other countries in the region. As long as these disputes remain unresolved, it would be difficult for these countries to believe China’s pledge that it would never seek hegemony.

Under such circumstances, ASEAN must take more initiative, play a leading role in promoting regional peace, attempt to solve or mitigate regional conflicts, promote peace talks, eliminate disputes, build mutual trust and firmly refrain from choosing sides. Following the greater intervention of foreign forces, regional geopolitics have become increasingly complex and ASEAN and other regional countries must beware of being manipulated into becoming another NATO. Taking Japan as an example, while it can and should play a larger role in maintaining regional stability as an economic powerhouse in the region, getting involved with NATO in Europe is unfathomable.

Indeed, Asia is different from Europe and the Americas. Over the past 50 years, Asia has achieved peace, friendship, cooperation and prosperity without being subjugated to any great power or ideology.

Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen speaks at a plenary session during the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, 12 June 2022. (Caroline Chia/Reuters)
Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen speaks at a plenary session during the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, 12 June 2022. (Caroline Chia/Reuters)

Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen emphasised the need to “learn the right lessons from Ukraine” to prevent the outbreak of armed conflict in Asia. Countries in the region are diverse and interdependent — the ideological battle between autocracy and democracy is not a core issue in Asia. In a speech titled “Managing Geopolitical Competition in a Multipolar Region”, Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto said that Asia’s “common experience of being dominated, enslaved, exploited, has forced us now to strive to create a peaceful environment, one of friendship” and to resolve challenges the “Asian way”, which seems to provide much food for thought.

Indeed, Asia is different from Europe and the Americas. Over the past 50 years, Asia has achieved peace, friendship, cooperation and prosperity without being subjugated to any great power or ideology. ASEAN has played a pivotal role in this and it has developed its own methods of effectively solving international problems. Perhaps “ASEAN way” would be a more accurate description than “Asian way”. 

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