China's Assertive Behavior Makes Neighbors Wary China's foreign policy has appeared increasingly assertive recently. What isn't clear is whether this is part of a coherent plan or just an outgrowth of China's increasing stature in Asia and beyond.
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China's Assertive Behavior Makes Neighbors Wary

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China's Assertive Behavior Makes Neighbors Wary

China's Assertive Behavior Makes Neighbors Wary

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The Chinese Communist Party will soon choose new leaders, a once-in-a-decade transition. And all week, we've been examining the challenges they'll face. Our final story, in two parts, begins with NPR's Louisa Lim on Chinese foreign policy and how it affects China's neighbors.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

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LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: A war cry echoes across China's cities, shouts for war with Japan. This was the scene following Japan's decision to buy disputed islands in the East China Sea. Strategic interests are at stake. But the crowds are motivated by something else. One chant says it all: never forget national humiliation.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

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ZHU ZEYAO: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Japan has bullied us too much, says student protester Zhu Zeyao, alluding to what China calls its century of humiliation. For Chinese people, he says, it's all about historical respect.

DR. WANG ZHENG: The Chinese historical memory of national humiliation is really key to understanding China's foreign policy.

LIM: That's Wang Zheng from Seton Hall University. He's just written a book about China's use of national humiliation, which he says was stepped up after the killing of unarmed protesters in 1989.

ZHENG: They were facing a crisis that the socialism or communism is no longer a ideology for Chinese people, and nationalism somehow became the easiest tool to use.

WEN JIABAO: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Speaking recently, Premier Wen Jiabao said China's past should make its people cherish national pride more. He reminded future diplomats that before Communist rule, China was a weak country with no foreign policy. But even today, some argue there's a lack of coherent foreign policy guiding China's rise.

SUSAN SHIRK: To us, it looks like China is a unified actor, and they've got his grand strategy of taking over the world or competing with the United States to be a global superpower. I really don't think that's the case.

LIM: That's Susan Shirk from the University of California, San Diego. She believes that in the absence of any grand strategy, foreign policy is being hijacked by bureaucratic interests. She gives the example of a recent territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

SHIRK: This was manufactured, stirred up by agencies like the fishing agency, marine surveillance, people who wanted to use nationalism to get more power and influence for themselves.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: For young nationalists, news of Chinese boats being stopped by foreigners sparks outrage regardless of who the foreigners are. Beijing's victim complex hems its leaders in, even if they might want to build better ties with their neighbors. Here's Wang Zheng again.

ZHENG: The government's basic legitimacy is based on as a guardian of the Chinese national face. Backing down can be seen as a weakness or even a new humiliation.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Whether it be crowds in the street or unveiling a new aircraft carrier, China's external shows of force look like a sign of strength. But they mark a foreign policy vacuum, which is currently being filled by raw nationalism, making a rising Beijing a volatile player on the international stage. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.


FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I'm Frank Langfitt, and I'm walking along the beach on the Japanese island of Okinawa. You know, the impact of Chinese foreign policy extends far beyond the streets of Beijing. You can feel it here, hundreds of miles away. After the demonstrations, more than 4,000 Chinese tourists canceled their plans to visit here.

SEN TAMAKI: The Chinese government said it is not very safe to go to Japan now.

LANGFITT: Sen Tamaki works for the Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau. He says that warning was totally false. But it took a toll. And he's worried about long-term damage to Okinawa's economy if relations remain rocky.

TAMAKI: If you want to talk about the future, it's going to be a serious problem. Now, we depend on domestic market. But in Japan, the population is decreasing now. So the tourism market kind of shrinks in the future. So China is probably one of the biggest markets to Japan.

LANGFITT: China is also a big market for products from other neighbors, including bananas from the Philippines. So when those two countries got into a standoff last spring over another set of islands in the South China Sea, China imposed stringent health restrictions on Philippine bananas. Stephen Antig heads the Philippine Banana Growers and Exporters Association. He compares weekly exports before and after the conflict.

STEPHEN ANTIG: We used to export about 800,000 boxes of bananas to China. Now, we're lucky if we can export one to 200,000 boxes per week.

LANGFITT: Antig says now many small growers are running out of money. And big farmers are traveling to Europe and beyond to find new buyers.

ANTIG: The lesson is you should continue to identify new markets because you never know what can happen.

LANGFITT: As the biggest economy in Asia, China has lots of leverage with its neighbors. But using purchasing power as a club has limits. For instance, boycotting Japanese cars in China also hurts the Chinese workers who build them. Euan Graham is a senior fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

DR. EUAN GRAHAM: That economic weapon is not actually such a smart tool of power as they would like it to be and particularly if we start seeing the economic fallout as China's own economy starts to slow down from slowing investment from Japan and other outside countries.

LANGFITT: While some analysts see a lack of coordination behind China's new assertiveness offshore, others see a broader strategy and inevitability.

DR. HUANG JING: People have to face reality. They know the Chinese are coming. On the other hand, they worry about it.

LANGFITT: Huang Jing teaches political science at the National University of Singapore. He says as China's economy and military continue to grow, China will demand a bigger say in the region.

JING: This is their sphere of influence.

LANGFITT: And what do they want to use this sphere of influence for?

JING: First, for security. If your neighborhood is an influential of sphere for other power, for example, United States or Japan, you don't feel safe.

LANGFITT: In the last six months, China has had run-ins with both Japan and the Philippines. But Huang says ultimately, it's more concerned with the country that has dominated the region militarily for decades.

JING: When China look at those areas, they see America, America, America, everywhere.

LANGFITT: The U.S. has recently pledged to beef up its military profile in Asia, where it has huge economic interests. China sees this as an attempt to contain its rise. Countries across the region are hedging their bets and hoping they won't be forced to choose sides. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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