Chinese President Xi Jinping certainly does not lack confidence. He has suggested a new chapter in great power politics on the basis of joint Chinese-US world leadership, also known as the Group of Two (G2). And Xi has also been propagating the "Chinese Dream," which envisions restoring the country's former glory to make it a world leader once more.
In 2016, he even introduced the concept of the "Chinese solution," arguing that the country's authoritarian one-party state and liberal economic system are more effective at solving regional and global challenges than liberal democracies and their market economies.
Read more: Xi Jinping and the 'Chinese Dream'
The assertive foreign policy is a relatively new development, however. In 1972, when China was still in the throes of its Cultural Revolution, the nation became a permanent member of the UN Security Council. But the self-declared Middle Kingdom remained preoccupied with its own political and economic issues for many years, despite its UN status.
Things changed with the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which almost 3,000 students and activists were killed. China suddenly found itself amid a severe international crisis. The US and European Union (EU) lambasted China for suppressing the pro-democracy demonstrations and imposed an arms embargo that remains in place to this day.
China subsequently initiated a new foreign policy program mainly targeted at its immediate neighbors. It included a new security paradigm seeking to overcome Cold War thinking and to reduce American influence in Asia, as the director of the Institute of International Strategic and Development Studies at Tsinghua University, Chu Shulong, writes. That, he argues, was one of China's most significant foreign policy decisions to date.
Read more: US targets China's Confucius Institute as 'subversive' mechanism
Global governance and the financial crisis
At the beginning of the 21st century, China's then-President Jiang Zemin presided over a period later termed "China's peaceful rise," envisioning greater integration into the world economy, yet without provoking the ire of America or China's neighbors. During this time, China played by the globally established rules and did so successfully, becoming a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001.
The 2007/08 international financial crisis took a heavy toll on Western economies, and put the "Western way of life" into question. China, however, was barely affected by the crisis. Hu Jintao, China's president at the time, formulated a new set core objectives in 2009. China expert Angela Stanzel of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank summarizes as them as follows: "Advancing economic and social progress, ensuring the stability of the Communist party, and guaranteeing territorial and national security and integrity." It was the first time that China had taken a decidedly assertive, self-interested foreign policy stance. And China's new, confident role was already visible to the world at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
In 2013, Xi succeeded president Hu. Unlike any leader after Mao, Xi has been boldly striving for Chinese superpower status. "China's foreign policy has never been this assertive; the period of timidness is over," says Angela Stanzel. This new foreign policy chapter finds expression in Xi's prestigious Belt and Road Initative (BRI), which has also become known as the New Silk Road. And it also manifests itself in China's highly visible military presence in the South China Sea, and its insistence on free trade now that US President Donald Trump is championing protectionism.
EU split over growing China influence
The EU is also feeling China's growing assertiveness. According to German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), China sent a confidential Belt and Road Initative memorandum to European capitals in April 2018 for respective heads of state and government to sign. The Europeans had not been consulted, as would be standard protocol for bilateral agreements. China apparently did not wish to make any concessions. But refusing to sign the memorandum could have disadvantages, which is why, according to FAZ, some Eastern and Central European states opted to sign the document. Even though eventually 27 EU member states decided not to sign the paper and instead work out a single European position on China's Belt and Road Initiative.
The only EU member state to reject this European approach was Hungary. It has established close ties with China in recent times. In May 2017, ties were raised to the high possible level of comprehensive strategic partnership. One year earlier, Hungary (together with Croatia and Greece), had worked to tone down a EU statement on a ruling over China's maritime claims in the South China Sea. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban made no secret of his new relationship with China when he announced at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos that "we will ask China for infrastructural investments if the EU does not provide any financial assistance."
Lacking a grand strategy
Despite China's recent achievements some intellectuals have been wondering whether the country actually follows a grand strategy. Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, doubts this and says it does not suffice just to identify core objectives. He thinks there should also be a plan on how to reach and coordinate these objectives.
Asia expert and political scientist Gerhard Will, who used to work for the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), concurs. "A genuine world power needs more than just military and economic might." Namely diplomatic clout and soft power. So that it must not solely resort to military threats or economic incidences to influence other nations.
Chinese Dream has little appeal
Clearly, China has catching up to do when it comes to diplomatic clout and soft power. This becomes apparent in the context of international law. "If China rejects international norms, then it must promote others in their place. And build a following for them. I see a major shortcoming in this area," explains Gerhard Will.
Will thinks Southeast Asia will show if China will actually manage to rise peacefully. "China is capable of getting some of these governments on its side, but not their citizens. That will lead to massive conflicts in the long-term."
Cambodia, under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, has oriented itself towards China. It has adopted a role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that is comparable to that of Hungary in the EU. In 2012 and 2016, Cambodia blocked a joint ASEAN statement on China's role in the South China Sea. But unlike Cambodia's government, Cambodia's people are not at all pro-China, says Will. "The greater China's influence, the more people come to dislike the country." It seems, says Will, that the "Chinese Dream" has little appeal.