Aburgeoning economy and the overall growth of a country represent the most likely precursors to a large-scale conflict spurred by revisionist sentiment. Historical examples to corroborate this realist interpretation of international relations theory abound—from Nazi Germany to Imperial Japan, dissatisfaction with the status quo has led to some of the most disastrous and costly episodes of our past. In present day, however, one country immaculately matches the profile of the instigator, but has so far evaded the fate of the aggressor. Over the last decade China’s GDP has increased more than six-fold and its military forces have undergone complete modernization, rendering the country an East Asian hegemon and an extra regional power. Surprisingly, despite China’s remarkable growth and the optimistic prognosis for its future, Beijing has stopped short of establishing its authority through any physical means. Instead, the country’s politicians have embarked on a different course–altering the status quo in accordance with international law and without drawing any attention with patently controversial moves.

Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China Seas has often been misconstrued as a signal of Chinese truculence and nascent, belligerent revisionism. Island disputes in Southeast Asia have, however, long been a bone of contention for the states in the region with haphazard provocations coming from all parties involved, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and, admittedly, China. As such, China’s behavior has set no troubling precedent in a territorial wrangle that has already lasted for decades. Furthermore, Beijing has often preferred to resort to international organizations for the resolution of such disagreements as demonstrated by its submission of two notes verbales to the UN in 2009 and 2011, in which Chinese claims remained unchanged from their original version in the 1970’s. In addition, Beijing’s participation, alongside ASEAN, in the inscription of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, has further demonstrated the ostensible willingness of the Chinese leadership to conform to the principles of good neighborliness and to try to resolve any outstanding disputes via negotiations. Certainly, this seeming, but not necessarily genuine, benevolence has been marred by numerous incidents originating from China’s naval assertiveness. However, paying excessive attention to such episodes and using them as evidence of Chinese aggression would entail turning a blind eye to all similar actions by the other states involved in the dispute and thereby falling into the trap of selection bias.

The rapid modernization of the Chinese Navy, which now also operates an aircraft carrier and can engage in sophisticated activities far from its home shores, has also drawn attention as a sign of patent bellicosity. While a country certainly does not build gargantuan warships that expand maritime power simply to protect its littoral interests and maritory, the importance of such actions should not be overstated and China’s dynamically evolving interests brushed aside. In 2010, the country became the world’s largest exporter, so the unconstrained movement of Chinese products has turned into a top priority for the government. Understandably, the larger naval outflow of goods requires enhanced protection of all major sea lines of communication—a feat that could only be achieved with a larger and better-equipped fleet. The number of naval exercises has also rapidly increased and some of these have included China’s larger battle ships. This display of force, while certainly unpleasant to China’s relatively weaker neighbors, in no way differs from the joint US-ROK or US-Japan military exercises and has led to a more confident China participating in international operations such as the clamp-down on piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Thus, while the modernization of the Chinese Navy does not necessarily imply aggressive intentions, it has allowed Beijing to step up its presence on the stage of world politics and protect its economic interests more effectively.

While China’s economic needs and outstanding territorial disputes could account for the overhaul of the country’s navy and its maritime assertiveness, as a growing economic and political power cognizant of its auspicious future, China certainly does not stand by with its hands crossed. In lieu of acting belligerently, the Chinese leadership has opted for a much more inventive and subtle strategy. Essentially, Beijing is substantiating its authority as a major power by expanding its economic influence across the world and establishing a very foxy, yet ever more prominent, presence in international organizations.

Since the first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2000 until today, the Chinese government has transmuted into the major creditor of most African nations and in 2013, over 800 Chinese corporations were engaged in various infrastructural and development projects on the continent.

In Asia, Cambodia finds itself in a similar position as its African counterparts, while Vietnam, Mongolia and Japan receive the plurality of their imports from China. China is even the major creditor and trading partner of the United States. Thus, Beijing has done a significant amount to ensure that its domestic economic miracle is projected beyond Chinese boundaries and expands China’s involvement worldwide.

Similarly, on the diplomatic front, China has been passively aggressive. When North Korea torpedoed the South Korean corvette Cheonan in 2010 and later shelled an island of the ROK, Chinese statements focused on the maintenance of peace on the Korean Peninsula without condemning any side. Likewise, when chemical weapons were utilized during the Syrian Civil War, and as evidence amounted against al-Assad’s regime, Beijing took a similar, meek stance, condemning the use of weapons for mass destruction without decrying the actions of the establishment in Damascus. Furthermore, the Chinese leadership vetoed multiple Security Council resolutions that could have left the option of a military intervention open, a military intervention that could have booted out al-Assad and his cohort.

Essentially, much like Russia, whose leadership is actively espousing a new, multipolar world order and is exercising its powers through the UN to protect friendly regimes, so is China, yet more tenaciously, trying to keep a poker face, while acting decisively when its economic and political influence is at stake.