By Chong-Pin Lin.

For China 2008 was a year of diplomatic harvests. Not only did Beijing reach agreement with Moscow in October on their disputed borders of more than 4,000 kilometers, it did the same with Hanoi on the 1,300 km long border at the year’s end. In May, Chinese President Hu Jintao concluded a successful state visit to Tokyo with a 70-item agreement on Sino-Japan cooperation, followed up in June with a bilateral agreement on the peaceful development of East China Sea resources—exactly where tension between the two countries has erupted since 2010. Not to mention that the PLA and Pentagon established a military hotline in April that year, the Olympic extravaganza was successfully staged in August and the Taiwan Strait was no longer a military flashpoint. Following Ma Ying-jeou’s assumption of the presidency, Beijing and Taipei launched, for example, “three major links” –shipping, postal, and communication — in December.

One could say on New Year’s eve 2008 that China was the only major power in the world that had no obvious enemy: In contrast to the U.S. and NATO fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Japan under the threat of North Korea, and Russia feuding with Georgia and Chechnya.

Come 2009, Beijing seemed to throw away most of its hard-won international goodwill and began stridently asserting its maritime sovereignty in East Asia. It began in March that year when Chinese boats and aircraft in South China Sea repeatedly confronted the Impeccable, a U.S. ocean surveillance ship. In the following months and years, contentious episodes erupted between China and other neighbors including Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines. That provided the U.S.–already eager to expand its presence in the region to compensate for the diminution of its international influence under troop withdrawal from the Middle East– a welcome justification to act graciously as the invited outside power to balance China. Beijing’s shift in behavior in East Asia has pitted most of its neighbors explicitly or tacitly against itself, with the U.S. being their supporter. This is a geostrategic situation utterly disadvantageous to China’s long-term national interests.

So, why did Beijing’s leaders, who prided themselves on being the smart students of Sun Zi’s Art of War do it?

Three plausible explanations follow:

First, the departure of Zeng Qinghong from influential positions. Zeng, China’s former Vice President and the “king-maker” of Chinese politics, who catapulted Xi Jinping into the position to succeed Hu Jintao as top leader, was instrumental in Beijing’s intelligent handling of relations with the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong after 2002. He left all official positions in early 2008, but retained policy influence a while longer. However, the subsequent corruption investigations involving his son Zeng Wei disheartened the senior Zeng who then stopped his input into Beijing’s foreign policy all together. That resulted in a decline in finesse in Beijing’s dealings with its external challenges after 2008.

Second, China’s post-financial crisis hubris. China was the last major power to be hit by the global recession in quarter III of 2008 and the first to bottom out in quarter II of 2009. Chinese officials and scholars visiting the U.S. afterwards reported back home how despondent the Americans were. That stirred up Chinese national sentiments and the overconfidence that led to maritime confrontations.

Third, the Bo Xilai challenge. With hindsight, we now know that Bo, the now disgraced former “lord of Chongqing”, had harbored ambition to eventually replace Xi Jinping – already designated successor of Hu in 2007 — as China’s next top leader. He first needed to discredit Hu Jintao for being inadequate. According to a May 17, 2012 Wall Street Journal report, Bo continuously criticized “the center” for being weak during his regular meetings with PLA generals at his residence in Chongqing. These words spread within the well-connected PLA top brass community, and then spilled over into the society at large.

“Hu is too weak” became the popular talk on the streets in China’s big cities, replacing the affectionate reference “Hu baobao”(darling baby Hu) that had once prevailed in late 2002 when Hu was inaugurated as national leader.

Bo quietly laid the groundwork in 2008, and launched with fanfare his “Chongqing model” campaign – “singing the red” to inspire the Maoist revolutionary zeal and “smashing the black” to harshly punish alleged social criminals –in 2009.

By then, in order to alleviate the domestic pressure on himself, Hu had allowed, though within limits of open fire, the PLA Navy and the associated maritime surveillance forces to toughen their treatment of foreign activities in maritime areas Beijing claimed sovereignty over. Hence China became perceived as increasingly assertive in East Asia.

In mid-April 2012, Bo was stripped of all official positions. Beijing’s handling of maritime disputes with neighbors morphed into a style more skilled yet not less soft. The new characteristics suggest that Beijing takes measures less under domestic pressure and more after thoughtful calculation.

First, react rather than provoke. The 2012 Sino-Japan Senkaku/Diaoyu contention began with Tokyo Mayor Shintaro Ishihara seeking to purchase the disputed islands which started a long series of chain reactions still ongoing today. In contrast, the 2010 Sino-Japan Senkaku/Diaoyu clash began with a Chinese fishing boat ramming into a Japanese coastal guard ship.

Second, avoid physical damage while adopting an escalating posture. Unlike in the 2011 Sino-Vietnamese Spratlys row where Chinese ships broke the Vietnamese boats’ underwater surveying cables, the Chinese parties have not harmed their counterparts in recent disputes.

Third, continue diplomatic contacts despite bilateral discord. Beijing maintained diplomatic contacts with the Philippines during the April-May 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff. Beijing has done the same with Tokyo despite the loud mutual accusations.

Fourth, stress extra-military instruments. China extensively used economic punishments against the Philippines and Japan during the maritime disputes after April 2012.

Fifth, go through Washington to contain the disputes. In both the Scarborough Shoal and the Senkaku/Diaoyu disputes, the U.S. after Beijing’s efforts to exert influence over Washington would stop short of publicly lending full support to its allies the Philippines and Japan, although privately the U.S. might have reiterated its stance to stand behind its allies.

Toughness abroad yields domestic returns. It seems that Beijing’s post-2009 East Asian maritime assertiveness signified by recklessness stemmed primarily from domestic political rivalry. When the rivalry waned, diplomatic sophistication came back to the fore.

Chong-Pin Lin is a Professor in the Graduate Institute of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, Taiwan. He formerly served as Taiwan’s Deputy Minister of National Defense and was first Vice Chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council. 


  1. Very far fetched, speculative, without presenting even a hint of an evidence to support the analysis…and somehow overlooking US’ “Asian Pivot”…

    With hindsight, we now know that Bo, the now disgraced former “lord of Chongqing”, had harbored ambition to eventually replace Xi Jinping – already designated successor of Hu in 2007 — as China’s next top leader.

    Do you know this for sure – any evidence?

    “Hu baobao”

    Wen baobao

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