- In a pragmatic attempt to maintain their hold on power, China's leaders have replaced a tightly controlled ideological system with one based on an amalgam of ideas ranging from nationalism to Confucianism.
- The confusion caused by this is exacerbated by the factional jostling in the Chinese Communist Party. The resulting lack of clarity about 'what China is' leads outsiders to interpret the country's actions either as signs of increasing assertiveness and aggression or of internal weakness.
- China's unclear narrative leads it into apparently contradictory actions and positions. It claims to champion developing countries but expects to be treated as one of the major powers. It joins multilateral organizations but is unyielding on its national interests. It speaks of its harmonious rise but flexes its military muscle. It wants to be seen as a strong country but plays on its history of victimization.
- As a result, China is widely viewed as incomprehensible and is distrusted. This causes it to react defensively, setting in motion a vicious circle of mistrust. To overcome this, external actors should look beyond the political rhetoric of the Chinese elite and focus on China's actions.