China’s Global Message: We Are Tough but Not Threatening

BEIJING — As President Xi Jinping of China watched from a rostrum above the iconic portrait of Mao, the weapons came one after the other down the Avenue of Eternal Peace. Intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering multiple nuclear warheads. Drones built for precision strikes. Tanks and armored personnel carriers bearing soldiers in green uniforms.

The occasion for the grand show of force on Tuesday in Tiananmen Square was the 70th anniversary of Communist rule in China — and it was Mr. Xi’s second military parade in four years, something no party leader since Mao had attempted to stage.

In an era when China plays a dominant role on the global stage, officials, whether in Washington or Moscow or Hanoi, use such events to discern the foreign policy intentions of Mr. Xi and determine whether the economic juggernaut of China is a political and military threat. And the festivities on Tuesday sent a clear message at a complicated time for China’s diplomacy.

With the parade and policies like the militarization of the South China Sea, Mr. Xi and other Communist Party leaders want to tell the world: We are ready to fight and to seize or protect what we deem is ours. They want to show that China is not the same nation they say was humiliated by European powers and Japan from the 19th to 20th centuries.

But China’s leaders, to a degree, see the contours of the fraught historical moment in which they find themselves. Around the world, their top diplomats are trying to defuse tensions and persuade counterparts that China is not an aggressor. That would help Beijing settle the trade war started by President Trump; head off policies aimed at constraining China’s global presence; and placate governments that have criticized the party’s positions on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet.

The Chinese leadership is walking a diplomatic and domestic tightrope. The contrasting messages could undermine its efforts to improve relations and persuade Western nations to embrace China. And it is aware that appearing weak in the face of the United States and others could erode efforts at home to bolster the party’s legitimacy by strengthening nationalism.

“China’s diplomacy is a constant balancing act between multiple and often competing objectives, and it does a bad job of finding the right balance,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who was senior Asia director on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.

In his parade speech, Mr. Xi repeated a famous phrase attributed to Mao — “The Chinese people have stood up.” But he took it one step further, saying, “There is no force that can shake the status of this great nation. No force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation forging ahead.”

Though the main audience for the party’s national anniversary military parades is Chinese citizens, the event does send a significant signal to the outside world, said Cheng Xiaohe, a professor and deputy director of the Center for China’s International Strategic Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. A central message, he said, is: “If China has to engage in war, China is prepared. China is not afraid to fight a war against anyone who dares to challenge China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The proud unveiling at the parade of the Dongfeng-41, China’s latest nuclear-ready intercontinental ballistic missile, underscored the point.

Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of Global Times, a nationalistic state-run newspaper, distilled his swelling pride at the martial showcase into a pair of tweets on Tuesday about what he called the “legendary DF41.”

“I touched one about four years ago in the production plant,” he wrote above a photograph of Mr. Xi riding in his black parade sedan next to the missiles. “No need to fear it. Just respect it and respect China that owns it.”

In the next tweet, which also accompanied photos of missiles, Mr. Hu wrote: “Message from them: Don’t mess up with the Chinese people or intimidate them. The Chinese people won’t provoke you anyway.”

The parade played right to concerns in Washington. Cabinet officials in the Trump administration, in particular Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, already assert that China is a revisionist power seeking to dominate the political, economic and security institutions of the West. Mr. Xi’s bold pronouncements and his hard-line domestic policies in the frontier areas of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet reinforce the notion among many Westerners that China is an aggressive challenger to their systems and values.

Yet just last week, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, tried to make a different point during a dinner in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

“China-U.S. relations today have once again come to a crossroads,” he said. “Some people are using any means to depict China as a major adversary, marketing their prophecy that the relationship is doomed to fall into the Thucydides trap, the clash of civilizations trap, and even clamoring for a full decoupling with China.

“The truth is that both countries have benefited tremendously from cooperation in the last 40 years,” he said, adding, “China has no intention of playing the Game of Thrones on the world stage.”

The “Thucydides trap” to which Mr. Wang referred is a theory popularized by the Harvard scholar Graham Allison that a rising power and an established power are likely bound for war. Mr. Xi has also referred to it in comments and emphasized his desire to avoid the trap.

Still, “China has a hard time understanding how other countries perceive it and has a tendency to hear the good news and not the bad news: the anxieties its behavior produces,” said Mr. Medeiros of Georgetown. “China seems unable, probably due its political system, to embrace the idea of strategic restraint: accepting binding commitments on its power as a way to reassure other countries China’s rise wont hurt them.”

Chinese leaders were not always so tone deaf. Back in the early 1990s, Chinese officials insisted they were just a developing country to foreign officials who talked about a “China threat theory,” according to Susan L. Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego. “Then they learned that words weren’t credible unless they took actions that demonstrated friendly intentions,” she said.

At least until 2008, party leaders pursued a strategy of reassurance and restraint. China signed a code of conduct on the South China Sea, joined multilateral institutions without overtly trying to usurp American leadership and offered free trade agreements to Asian nations.

Now, she said, “Xi Jinping has abandoned all restraint. They still give speeches about peaceful intentions but Beijing’s actions are far from reassuring. And the ‘China threat theory’ is back.”

A survey conducted by Pew Research Center this past summer shows that global opinions of China have worsened since 2018 in many Western and Asian nations. In the United States, 60 percent view China unfavorably — an increase from 47 percent in 2018, and at the highest level since Pew began asking the question.

Actions and policies of both Beijing and Washington could shift that balance somewhat in the coming months. Some Chinese officials are trying to find ways to paper over differences. For example, they are allowing Michael R. Bloomberg, the tycoon and former New York City mayor, to hold his New Economy Forum in China this fall, after forcing him to move it to Singapore last year because of trade tensions.

Questions persist, though, over whether the United States and China will reach a trade agreement, as negotiators prepare to meet next week in Washington. Foreign officials are also concerned that Beijing will order a crackdown on Hong Kong protesters by military or paramilitary forces.

At the military parade on Tuesday, the announcer praised the People’s Armed Police — the large paramilitary branch under the army that oversees riot control — for its role in maintaining national stability.

“The Chinese government is more interested in impressing domestic audiences than actually fighting foreign enemies,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor of government at Cornell University. “But displays of national strength and fiery rhetoric meant for domestic consumption can backfire if foreign powers escalate in response.

“So the Chinese government is trying to walk a very fine line, conveying strength at home while reassuring foreign audiences that China’s growing might does not pose a threat,” she added. “In order for bluster to work, it requires exactly this kind of split message.”

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