Rebranding China: Contested Status Signaling in the Changing Global Order

  • Published

Rebranding China: Contested Status Signaling in the Changing Global Order by Xiaoyu Pu. Stanford University Press, 2019, 152 pp.

Author Xiaoyu Pu is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. This book is part of a series addressing diverse contemporary security challenges in Asia. In Rebranding China, the author claims that China has a duality status struggle—resulting from its rapid growth and development—that receives little attention by scholars and practitioners. Is it a developing country, a benign regional leader, an aspiring global leader, an unwilling global leader, or an emerging  superpower? Is it playing a zero sum game with the international community or growing within the existing global order? The author asserts that China projects mixed messages to its domestic and international audiences and needs to better articulate its preferred status. Pu believes that how a country crafts its preferred image is vitally important. Sending mixed or confusing status signals can lead to geopolitical friction, distrust, and deep suspicions of China’s real intent by its own people and the global community at large.

The author meticulously builds a case for China’s poor status signaling by presenting many examples of how China exhibited confusing and sometimes contradictory foreign policy practices. He notes that China has a multiple audience dilemma, which gives incentives to maintain several identities with conflicting roles. China wants to be loved and feared at the same time. The challenge facing China is that all of its audiences receive China’s status signaling at the same time.

China presents a rapidly rising and emerging power image to its domestic audience but a developing country image to international audiences. It demands accommodation on geopolitical interests such as the Spratly Islands and South China Sea claims yet wants to be considered a  developing country on economic matters. When seeking opportunities from international institutions, China uses emerging power status (its strengths in resources, population, and economy) while at the same time shirking social/welfare responsibility to the global community when convenient, thus emphasizing its weaknesses as a developing country.

Pu explains that China wants depth of interconnectedness with its neighbors, thereby creating reliance on and interdependence with China. China sends two messages within East Asia. The first is “don’t fear us,” and the second is that China’s rise mutually benefits its neighbors. China professes to bring peaceful order to the region through multilateral economic and security institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, and the Belt and Road Initiative.

China claims it does not seek to overthrow the existing world order. After all, it is a primary beneficiary of the international system. However, the author notes that China is becoming more politically aggressive in regional/global posturing. It frequently leverages self-serving statecraft on national interest in an assertive and coercive manner with its neighbors. China is fearful of a US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and wants Asian security left to Asians. A problematic by-product of China’s haphazard status signaling is evidenced by how the US interprets it. The US sees China wanting to displace a US presence in the Asia-Pacific by expanding its global economic/security influence and being the regional hegemon. This is leading the US to rethink its strategy toward China.

Pu ultimately views China as a rising power with minimal threat to the global community. China sees its domestic image as more important than its international status. The author suggests that a rising power’s domestic audience is more important than its international audience. China’s status signaling is contested because the country’s population and leadership do not have consensus on China’s position on the world’s stage. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promotes the idea that it is the only legitimate political force that can defend China’s honor and the only entity capable of holding China together.

The author believes that for China to compete as a rising power with the US, the CCP/China needs to be a better leader in the international normative order. Being a better leader entails a well-communicated grand strategy supported by policies that reflect the strategy in both action and intent. China’s dilemma is how it must project an international image of conflicting roles in ways that promote its national interests without antagonizing or sending misperceptions that result in mistrust and fear by its own people, neighbors, and the world at large.

Pu superbly supports his thesis through countless well-articulated examples drawn from the  literature and thought-provoking analysis. Arguably, the most notable contribution the author makes to the body of knowledge is in introducing status signaling into the international relations literature. His signaling model, supported by his rigorous examination and application, helps frame how foreign policy behaviors are shaped by rising powers. It can also be seen as a means for information communication to appropriate political figures to either change or continue various status beliefs they may claim.

This book is best read by international relations/affairs, political science, and Chinese scholars as well as applicable governmental entities, including military leaders and Asia-Pacific specialists. It is also a relevant read for those interested in learning how rising powers struggle to shape their domestic and international identity and grow from their mistakes.

Dr. David A. Anderson
Professor of Strategic Studies
US Army Command and General Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."