There was an interesting take in the Wall Street Journal at the end of last week on the developing narrative of an increasingly assertive China alarming its neighbours—it also seems to be alarming its own citizens.
According to David Zweig, director of the Center on Environment, Energy and Resource Policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, many Chinese analysts are perplexed by what they perceive as a ‘significant shift’ in the way China’s government and military are engaging with the world.
He writes: ‘These academics are deeply concerned. Even usually nationalistic, pro-government friends are hesitant to defend current policy. And they also struggle to explain why all this is happening. Is China feeling its oats? Or is it bravado that masks feelings of insecurity?
‘In any case, the message is that for the first time in decades, Chinese foreign policy researchers see most of China's external problems emanating from its own behavior, rather than foreign efforts to contain China's rise.’
And it seems that even when the government is right, it’s wrong, with Zweig noting one academic he spoke with being perplexed as to why, when China had secured the release by Japan of a detained fishing vessel captain in September, it proceeded to demand an apology and allow three protests to go ahead.
This is in keeping with the points I’ve made previously on China overplaying its hand and looking at times, frankly, like a regional bully. Perhaps the most troubling point Zweig makes, and it’s one that echoes a recent piece Gordon Chang wrote for The Diplomat, is how the PLA appears increasingly to be pushing its own agenda.
As Zweig notes: ‘Chinese observers’ views of the military are also critical, and in some cases almost hostile. They all agree that the PLA has begun to act as an interest group, pushing its own agenda by having its officers appear on television, in military uniform, speaking out on foreign policy…This is a new phenomenon and one that makes civilians anxious.’