July 20, 2020

"For Our Enemies, We Have Shotguns": Explaining China's New Assertiveness

The following article - coauthored with Andrew Small - originally appeared in War on the Rocks on July 20, 2020. An excerpt is included below and the full text can be accessed here

China’s ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, has a colorful turn of phrase to describe his country’s approach to foreign policy: “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns.” The “enemies” he has attacked in the last two years encompass a bewilderingly expansive range of media and political targets, one of the contributory factors behind China’s rapidly deteriorating reputation in Sweden, alongside the Chinese government’s unwillingness to release a Swedish bookseller that it kidnapped. His belligerent behavior has been the subject of some bemusement in Stockholm: Why would Beijing choose so comprehensively to alienate a country that should, given its free-trading tradition, leading technology sector, and unusually successful investment ties with China, be one of its closest European partners?

In recent months, it has seemed like much of the world has been subjected to the same treatment, eliciting similar questions about why Beijing should engage in such self-defeating behavior. By any measure, China’s recent foreign policy has displayed an astonishing level of assertiveness. That Beijing has shed its prior inhibitions in the midst of a devastating global health and economic crisis for which the Chinese leadership itself bears culpability, and a still-fragile economic situation in China itself makes it all the more remarkable.

For those who have observed this pattern of behavior, the reasons remain confounding. Four possible explanations suggest themselves, based on whether Beijing perceives this as a new era in its foreign policy or a temporary phase, and whether its actions are motivated by a sense of strength or vulnerability. Analyzing whether its new foreign policy reflects temporary opportunism, hubris, crisis management, or deeper insecurity is helpful in discerning whether Beijing will ultimately look to wind back its aggressive posture or if there is greater escalation to come. Yet in practice, the most effective policy responses will look very similar, regardless of China’s intentions.