Flexing Muscles Flexibly: China and Asia’s Transitional Polycentrism

  • Tiang Boon Hoo


Amidst a strategic landscape of transitional polycentrism, China, as the world’s second largest economy and with its own hegemonic designs, is undoubtedly one of the forces of change. This chapter analyses China’s part in shaping this transitional polycentrism, with particular focus on its perceived rising foreign policy assertiveness in the region. It argues that since at least 2013, Beijing has been applying a strategy of ‘flexible assertiveness’ in Asia. This is a nuanced but deliberate policy with two discernible prongs: one is a tougher and more uncompromising approach towards what China regards as its core interests or connecting to its core interests; the other is a more flexible and cooperative approach towards other more negotiable interests that, while significant, are of relative secondary importance to Beijing.



This chapter is adapted from my article ‘Hardening the Hard, Softening the Soft: Assertiveness and China’s Regional Strategy,’ Journal of Strategic Studies (2016). doi: 10.1080/01402390.2016.1221820.


  1. Aiyar, S.W. 2015. Why US Allies Are Happy to Join China’s AIIB. The Diplomat, 30 June. Available at: Accessed 1 Oct 2015.
  2. Alexander, D., and P. Sweeney. 2013. US, China Warships Narrowly Avoid Collision in South China Sea. Reuters, 14 December. Available at: Accessed 27 Aug 2015.
  3. Atler, A., and D. Oppenheimer. 2009. Uniting the Tribes of Fluency to Form a Metacognitive Nation. Personality and Social Psychology Review 13 (3): 219–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. BBC Chinese News. 2014. 习近平强调强军与捍卫核心利益 (Xi Jinping Emphasizes Strong Army and the Protection of Core Interests), 12 March. Available at: Accessed 5 Jan 2016.
  5. Campbell, C., E. Meick, K. Hsu, and C. Murray. 2013. China’s “Core Interests” and the East China Sea. US-China Economic and Security Review Commission Research Backgrounder, 10 May, pp. 1–7.Google Scholar
  6. Cao, Q. 2015. 南海争端司法化中的美国因素 (The American Factor in the Legalization of the South China Sea Dispute). China Institute of International Studies, 12 August.Google Scholar
  7. Chen, Z.M. 2014a. 中国的外文创薪是否禽要外文革命 (Will China’s Diplomatic Innovation Lead to a Diplomatic Revolution). 世界经济与政治 (World Economics and Politics) 12: 42.Google Scholar
  8. ———. 2014b. 复旦中国国家安全战略报告2014 (Fudan China National Security Report 2014). Shanghai: Fudan University.Google Scholar
  9. Chen, D.X. 2014c. 新一届政府外交的关键词 (Key Phrases of the New Leadership’s Foreign Policy). 党政论坛: 干部文摘 (Party and Government Forum) 4: 24.Google Scholar
  10. Chen, D.D., and J.W. Wang. 2011. Lying Low No More? China’s New Thinking on the Tao Guang Yang Hui Strategy. China: An International Journal 9 (2): 195–216.Google Scholar
  11. Chen, D.D., X.Y. Pu, and A.I. Johnston. 2013. Correspondence: Debating China’s Assertiveness. International Security 38 (3): 176–183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Chen, J., F. Xia, and J.P. Chen. 2014. China, ASEAN Embarking on Cooperation of “Diamond Decade”. Xinhua News, 11 November. Available at: Accessed 27 Aug 2015.
  13. Cheng, Z.J., and W. Wang. 2014. 外交定位、外交思维与中国的外交作为观 (Views on the Position, Thinking and Conduct of Foreign Policy). 新视野(New Horizon) 4: 36–41.Google Scholar
  14. China Daily. 2016. The Farce of Shooting Oneself in the Foot, 15 July. Available at: Accessed 16 July 2016.
  15. Commentator. 2016. 中国维护南海领土主权和海洋权益的决心坚定不移 (China’s Determination to Defend its Territorial Sovereignty and Maritime Rights and Interests is Unwavering). People’s Daily, 13 July, p. 1.Google Scholar
  16. Cronin, P., E. Ratner, E. Colby, Z. Hosford, and A. Sullivan. 2014. Tailored Coercion: Competition and Risk in Maritime Asia. Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security.Google Scholar
  17. Dai, B.G. 2010. 坚持走和平发展道路 (Stick to the Path of Peaceful Development). Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, 6 December.Google Scholar
  18. ———. 2011. 白皮书-中国的和平发展 (White Paper on China’s Peaceful Development). State Council Information Office of the PRC, 6 September.Google Scholar
  19. Feng, Huiyun, and Kai He. 2014. Examining China’s Assertiveness Through the Eyes of Chinese IR Scholars (RSIS working paper, no. 281), p. 8.Google Scholar
  20. Forsyth, Ian. 2017. Games with Frontiers: China and the East and South China Seas’ Disputes. In Chinese Foreign Policy Under Xi, ed. Hoo Tiang Boon, 144–157. New York/London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  21. Guan, L. 2014. 邓小平与韬光养晦、有所作为的战略方针 (Deng Xiaoping and the Strategic Guideline of Hide Brightness, Cherish Obscurity and Do Some Things). 中共中央党校学报 (Journal of the Central Party School) 4: 18–22.Google Scholar
  22. Guo, S.L., and Z.Y. Liu. 2013. 金灿荣:中国外交明确底线原则 (Jin Canrong: China’s Diplomacy Clearly Observes the Baseline Principle. 南方周末(Southern Weekly), 9 December. Available at: Accessed 5 Oct 2015.
  23. Hayashi, Y., P. Page, and J. Barnes. 2013. Tensions Flare as Japan Says China Threatened Its Forces. The Wall Street Journal, 5 February. Available at: Accessed 27 Aug 2015.
  24. He, K., and H.Y. Feng. 2014. China’s Bargaining Strategies for a Peaceful Rise: Successes and Challenges. Asian Security 10 (2): 168–187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hoo, T.B. 2014. Cross-Strait Relations Since 2008: Assessing Intra-Position Politics. International Journal of China Studies 5 (1): 137–151.Google Scholar
  26. ———. 2016. The Hedging Prong in India’s Evolving China Strategy. Journal of Contemporary China 25 (101): 792–804.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hoo Tiang Boon, ed. 2017. Chinese Foreign Policy Under Xi. New York/London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  28. Hoo Tiang Boon, and Charles Ardy. 2017. China and Lilliputians: Small States in a Big Power’s Evolving Foreign Policy. Asian Security 13 (2): 116–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Huai, C.B. 2011. 怎样理解“国家核心利益”? (How to Understand “Core National Interests?”). 红旗文稿 (Red Flag Documents) 2: 38.Google Scholar
  30. Huaxia. 2015. People’s Daily: China’s Sovereignty Over South China Sea Islands Brooks No Denial. Xinhua News, 15 December. Available at: Accessed 5 Jan 2016.
  31. ———. 2016. China’s Air Force Conducts Combat Air Patrol in South China Sea. Xinhua News, 18 July. Available at: Accessed 19 July.
  32. Jakobson, L. 2014. China’s Unpredictable Maritime Security Actors. Sydney: Lowy Institute for International Policy.Google Scholar
  33. Jerden, B. 2014. The Assertive China Narrative: Why It Is Wrong and How So Many Still Bought into It. The Chinese Journal of International Politics 7 (1): 47–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Jia, Q.G. 2015a. 新时期呼唤新理念、新做法:对我国外交的几点思考 (New Ideas and New Practices in New Times: Some Thoughts on Our Foreign Policy). 现代国际关系 (Contemporary International Relations) 2: 15–17.Google Scholar
  35. Jia, X.D., 2015b. 美搅局南海的三重战略目的 (Three Important Objectives Behind the United States’ Mess Up of the South China Sea). China Institute of International Studies, 3 June.Google Scholar
  36. Johnston, A.I. 2013. How New and Assertive is China’s New Assertiveness? International Security 37 (4): 7–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lei, T.Y. 2015. 一带一路领导班子, 一正四副名单首曝光 (The One Belt One Road Leading Group, Leader and Members Revealed for the First Time. Xinhua News, 6 April. Available at: Accessed Dec 2015.
  38. Li, H. 2008. 浅析两岸关系和平发展的论断 (An Analytical Thesis on the Peaceful Development of Cross-Strait Relations). 現代台湾研究 (Modern Taiwan Studies) 4: 25–26.Google Scholar
  39. Li, M.J. 2015. China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative: New Round of Opening Up? RSIS Commentary, 11 March.Google Scholar
  40. Lubold, G. 2015. Pentagon Says China Has Stepped Up Land Reclamation in South China Sea. The Wall Street Journal, 20 August. Available at: Accessed 27 Aug 2015.
  41. Marcus, J. 2015. US-China Tensions Rise Over Beijing’s Great Wall of Sand. BBC News, 29 May. Available at: Accessed 27 Aug 2015.
  42. Miles, Rufus. 1978. The Origin and Meaning of Miles’ Law. Public Administration Review 38 (5): 399–403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. 2013. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on April 26, 28 April.Google Scholar
  44. ———. 2015. Wang Yi Expounds Views on Situation of South China Sea, 16 May.Google Scholar
  45. ———. 2016. Speech by Dai Bingguo at China-US Dialogue on South China Sea Between Chinese and US Think Tanks, 5 July.Google Scholar
  46. Pang, Q.J. 2014. 在领土主权和海洋权益上绝对没有讨价还价余地 (On Territorial Sovereignty and Maritime Rights and Interests, There is Absolutely No Room for Bargaining). Liberation Army Daily, 30 May. Available at: Accessed 5 Oct 2015.
  47. Pei, G.J., and D. Wang. 2013. 坚定不移走和平发展道路 为实现中华民族伟大复兴营造良好国际环境 (Steadfastly Take the Path of Peace and Development, Create a Good International Environment for Chinese Nation’s Great Rejuvenation – Series of Report Meetings on Propaganda and Education on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Chinese Dream). People’s Daily, 22 November. Available at: Accessed 5 Jan 2016.
  48. People’s Liberation Army News. 2012. 南海解局的关健:软的更软, 硬的更硬 (The Key to Solving the South China Sea Conundrum: Softening the Soft, Hardening the Hard), 2 February. Available at: Accessed 5 Oct 2015.
  49. Qi, H.G. 2014. 关于周边外交顶层设计的思考 (Reflections on Top-Level Design of Peripheral Diplomacy). 国际关系研究 (Journal of International Relations) 4: 20–22.Google Scholar
  50. Qu, D.G. 2008. 指导对台工作的纲领性文件 (Guiding Documents of Work on Taiwan). 現代台湾研究 (Modern Taiwan Studies) 1: 28–32.Google Scholar
  51. Ren, Q.Q., and J.H. Wang. 2012. 中国坚定维护国家利益, 妥善处理热点问题 (China Will Resolutely Protect Its National Interests, Will Handle Hot Issues Appropriately). Xinhua News, 10 August. Available at: Accessed 5 July 2015.
  52. ———. 2015. 中国核心利益不容挑战 (China’s Core Interests Brook No Challenge). Xinhua News, 25 May. Available at: Accessed 27 Aug 2015.
  53. Scobell, A., and S. Harold. 2013. An “Assertive” China? Insights from Interviews. Asian Security 9 (2): 111–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Shi, X.P. 2007. 对台政策新思维论略 (New Thoughts on Taiwan Policy). 中共福建省委党校学报 (Journal of Fujian Party School) 1: 27–28.Google Scholar
  55. State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China. 2012. White Paper on Diaoyu Island, an Inherent Territory of China, 26 September.Google Scholar
  56. Swaine, Michael. 2010. Perceptions of an Assertive China. China Leadership Monitor 32: 10.Google Scholar
  57. Swaine, Michael, and Taylor Fravel. 2011. China’s Assertive Behaviour: Part Two, the Maritime Periphery. China Leadership Monitor 34: 8.Google Scholar
  58. The Economist. 2011. Discord: China’s Tough New Attitude Is Both Dangerous and Counterproductive. The Economist, January 13.Google Scholar
  59. Wang, G.L. 2011. 关于国家核心利益的几点思考 (Thoughts on Core National Interests). 国际观察 (International Observer) 4: 117–131.Google Scholar
  60. Wang, Y.Z. 2012. 处理中菲黄岩岛对峙问题需“软硬兼施” (Handling the Sino-Philippine Issue of the Huangyan Island Requires a “Soft-Hard Dual Approach”). Communist Party of China (CPC) News Network, 10 May. Available at: Accessed 17 July 2015.
  61. ———. 2013a. 中国外交需“硬的更硬, 软的更软” (China’s Diplomacy Needs to “Harden the Hard, Soften the Soft”). SINA News, 7 March. Available at: Accessed 17 July 2015.
  62. ———. 2013b. 我国外交新思路 (New Thinking on Chinese Diplomacy). 党政论坛:干部文摘 (Party and Government Forum) 8: 29.Google Scholar
  63. ———. 2014. 新一届领导人外交战略七个关键词 (Seven Key Phrases of the New Leadership’s Foreign Strategy). Communist Party of China (CPC) News Network, 18 February. Available at: Accessed 17 July 2015.
  64. Wang, Y. 2015. 盘点2014:中国外交丰收之年 (2014 in Review: A Successful Year for China’s Diplomacy). 国际问题研究 (International Studies) 1: 1–10.Google Scholar
  65. White House. 2015. Transcript of the Read-Out of the President’s Call with President Xi Jinping, 21 July. Available at: jinping. Accessed 29 Aug 2015.
  66. Xinhua News. 2013. 日报披露中方称钓鱼岛事关核心利益 (Japanese Paper Reveals That China Has Said the Diaoyu Island Concerns the Core Interests), 13 June. Available at: Accessed 7 Oct 2015.
  67. Xu, Q. 2013. 中国外交进入“奋发有为”新常态 (China’s Diplomacy Enters the New Normal of ‘Striving for Achievement’). 中国日报 (China Daily), 16 December. Available at: Accessed 5 July 2015.
  68. Xu, P.H. 2014. 汉武帝“大一统”的国家观及其当代价值 (The Modern Value of Han Wudi’s “Great Unification” National Theory). 中共福建省委党校学报 (Journal of Fujian Party School) 3: 107–114.Google Scholar
  69. Yahuda, M. 2013. China’s New Assertiveness in the South China Sea. Journal of Contemporary China 22 (81): 446–459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Yan. 2013. Premier Li Keqiang’s Keynote Speech at 10th China Asean Expo. Xinhua News, 3 September. Available at: Accessed 8 Sep 2015.
  71. Yan, X.T. 2014. China’s New Foreign Policy: Not Conflict but Convergence of Interests. Huffington Post, 28 January. Available at: Accessed 5 July 2015.
  72. Yang, Y. 2014. China Pledges Over 20-bln-USD Loans to Boost Southeast Asian Connectivity. Xinhua News, 13 November. Available at: Accessed 8 Sep 2015.
  73. Yang, J. 2015. 新时期中国外交思想、战略和实践的探索创新 (Exploration and Innovation of Theories, Strategies and Practices in China’s Diplomacy in the New Period). 国际问题研究 (International Studies) 1: 26–27.Google Scholar
  74. Yang, M., and J.R. Li. 2014. 王俊生: 中国周边外交目标是为中华民族复兴 (Wang Junsheng: The Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation is the Goal of China’s Peripheral Diplomacy). People’s Daily, 6 December. Available at: Accessed 27 Aug 2015.
  75. Yu, Z.L. 2015. 积极进取, 引领亚洲, 全球再平衡 (Forge Ahead Actively, Lead Asia, Rebalancing the World). 国际观察 (International Observation) 1: 1.Google Scholar
  76. Zeng, R.M. 2007. 对台政策:连续与发展 (Taiwan Policy: Continuity and Development). 世界知识 (World Affairs) 22: 46–47.Google Scholar
  77. Zhang, D.Y. 2011. 历史性突破: 中国首次界定核心国家利益 (Historical Breakthrough: China Delineates the Core National Interests for the First Time). 世界知识 (World Affairs) 19: 21.Google Scholar
  78. Zhang, Q.S. 2014. 习近平出席中央外事工作会议并发表重要讲话 (Major Speech of Xi Jinping at the Foreign Affairs Work Conference of the Central Committee). Xinhua News, 29 November. Available at: Accessed 5 July 2015.
  79. Zhao, K.J. 2014. 党的十八大以来的中国新外交 (China’s New Diplomacy Since the 18th Party Congress). 国际政治与经济 (International Politics and Economy) 2: 96–97.Google Scholar
  80. Zheng, Y.N., and L.F. Lye. 2015. China’s Foreign Policy: The Unveiling of President Xi Jinping’s Grand Strategy. East Asian Policy 7 (1): 62–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Zhongsheng. 2012. 中国维护领土主权的意志不容试探 (China’s Determination to Protect Its Territorial Sovereignty Should Not Be Tested. People’s Daily, 17 January. Available at: Accessed 8 Sep 2015.
  82. Zhu, F. 2014. 新时代的中国外交: 积极进取, 合作共赢 (New Age Chinese Diplomacy: Forge Ahead Actively, Win-Win Cooperation). 今日中国 (China Today) 12: 14–15.Google Scholar
  83. Zhu, S.L., and F. Xu. 2006. 战略与策略的结合:大陆对台湾的影响力投放(Combination of Strategy and Tactics: Mainland China’s Policy of Influence on Taiwan). 中央社会主义学院学报 (Journal of the Central Institute of Socialism) 4: 75–79.Google Scholar
  84. 北京周报 (Beijing Review). 2013. 中国强调维护国家核心利益不等于对外“示强” (China’s Emphasis on Defending Its Core National Interests Is Not “Flexing of Muscles”), 3 September. Available at: Accessed 3 Aug 2015.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tiang Boon Hoo
    • 1
  1. 1.S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological UniversitySingaporeSingapore

Personalised recommendations