International Relations Matter

Understanding China’s growing aggression

China has been named “the greatest threat to world order” by many journalists. But why is China do aggressive? What do they have to gain from their actions? Understanding this will need a lot of looking back in history.

China has continued to conduct military exercises around Taiwan weeks after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island nation. With Xi Jin Ping facing economic challenges at home nearing his bid for a third term in office, his strongman politics and true intentions are becoming more apparent than ever. What this means for you, as a debater, is that it is becoming easier to dissect China’s true interests and understand why they behave the way they do.

What has China been doing in the Asia-Pacific?

Although China claims to be a peace-loving giant trying to humbly rise to the position of global superpower, its actions in the Asia-Pacific don’t come off too friendly.

For starters, it has instigated violence right at its border with India. Despite agreements saying that the opposing claims for land will be resolved through peaceful consultations, China has had on and off conflicts and skirmishes with Indian soldiers at their border for the past few decades. Not only India, but China also has active territorial disputes with at least 17 nations, both maritime, like those with Malaysia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. And also land disputes with Bhutan, Nepal, and India, just to name a few.

Secondly, China is notorious for its complete disregard for international law and treaties. Most notably, China has been incredibly mischievous in the South China Sea. Since 2013, it has been carrying out land reclamation and building military bases in the South China Sea, what is considered international territory. This is to say that they have been building man-made islands, equipped with airports, radars and potentially store weapons and missiles there.

Aside from that, it has also been frequently instigating violence with other countries. For instance, China has repeatedly violated countries’ exclusive economic zones, meaning to say that they have sent ships and aircraft into foreign territory illegally. For several years now, China has done ‘close distance maneuvering’ against the Philippines, i.e. they send massive shipping vessels to fish in Philippines waters while menacing the local ships, plundering their territories’ fish, blocking them, using water cannons on them, and risking collisions to drive coast guards away.

Picture of one of the Chinese man-made military bases

Why is China behaving so aggressively?

Looking back a century into Chinese history, it will become clear why China has been such a rule breaker. The Chinese Mindset in their foreign policy is rooted in the post opium war era, where the Chinese suffered a loss of territory, a loss of control over its internal and external environment, and a loss of international standing and dignity. Most Chinese people recognize this period as the Century of Humiliation. As such, the timeframe between 1839 and 1939 played a fundamental Role in shaping The Modern Geopolitical Mindset of China. In fact in modern times, Beijing counts 21 agreements (a series of treaties and agreements in which China was forced to concede many of its territorial and sovereignty rights) that were signed during the Century of Humiliation as the unfair treaties.

Hardened by the past and considering the century of humiliation as an injustice to be rectified, there is no valid reason for China to trust outside forces or international commitments. In fact the majority of policymakers in Beijing believe that international law is merely an instrument to keep China in check and vulnerable. Further, most of the Chinese decision-making body adheres to the idea that their country was defeated because of its defensive geopolitical orientation. And so, to overcome this, Beijing has come to the belief that it must become more like the West and take a militarily aggressive posture in regard to geopolitical objectives.

But that is not the only reason why China is having its claws out right now. The man in power, Xi Jin Ping is currently seeking a third term as the Chinese population grows older and more nationalist, while skepticism on the CCP’s ability to govern is growing because of the economic crisis its facing after his strongman “Zero-Covid” policy. This means that Xi Jin Ping has structural incentives to save face (爱面子: a common Chinese phrase meaning to save a person’s dignity). This is why he is doubling down on his stance towards ‘returning Taiwan to the mainland’ in order to appease the Chinese population and show that he is a strong and capable leader. With a still troubled economy, he will need to assert dominance and strength, while still being careful not to overshoot in order to smoothly secure a third term.

Aside from that, Xi himself has claimed that he wants to be listed as one of the 3 great leaders of China, alongside Mao Zedong (a strongman who founded the CCP and played an crucial role in enforcing planned economy in China) and Deng Xiaoping (the first president to open up China’s economy, leading to a boom). So, Xi Jin Ping is currently very ambitious about asserting himself and China as a global superpower and hegemon.

How does this help you in your debates?

Debates involving China are becoming increasingly common. Whether it be to give an example of rogue behavior, evaluating how the CCP makes decisions, or determining how to navigate diplomacy with it, China will almost always pop up in IR motions.

The information here best helps to characterize China. Given that many of these IR motions depend heavily on giving a nuanced and realistic portrayal of the status quo, it is important to comprehensively understand China and the man in power to have a bulletproof characterization. Many debaters tend to make the mistake of falling to one side of two extremes, some tend to portray China as a monster that would do anything in their power to attack and provoke other countries. Some tend to side with the CCP rhetoric that China is peaceful and minimize the significance of China’s aggressive behavior.

The most strategic characterization of China should be one that is nuanced: that China still poses a threat to global order.

The fact that Chinese diplomats and policy makers have said that they don’t respect international commitments because of troubled history with the West means they are unpredictable.

The fact that they have shot missiles and sent jets over countries like Taiwan, Japan and Malaysia, means they still pose a threat to countries’ sovereignty.

The fact that China itself has increased their military budget and has admitted they have plans to invade Taiwan shows they are not as peaceful as its propaganda claims.

However, China and its leader, Xi Jin Ping, are in a tricky position. Facing economic challenges at home, Mr. Xi cannot afford to make another mistake which would send a severe blow to his reputation among the Chinese people. This is why despite Chinese nationalists demanding Pelosi’s plane to be shot down, Xi Jin Ping restrained, but still purposely shot missiles over Taiwan to flex his muscles to his contingent.

This means that China will still continue to be aggressive, but their aggression is calculated, meaning that at this point in time, they will not do something that jeopardizes their rise to superpower position like starting a war.

So there you have it! A brief history lesson on China, and how to appropriately characterize them to your advantage in debates.

Related motions

  • This House believes that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue should initiate the creation of a regional defence pact (similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in the Asia Pacific Region.
  • This House believes that the US should attempt to aggressively contain China’s capacity to build AI systems (e.g., by limiting China’s ability to skill and retain computer scientists, attract US capital into Chinese AI companies, or access parts needed to build AI systems where the US has significant market share, such as semiconductors).

Further reading

The information in this article is a compilation of several sources, which are listed below. We recommend you read them for further understanding of the topic.

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