For years much of Asia and the rest of the world had thought — or at least wished — that China’s ascent as an economic superpower would be a "peaceful rise" full of "win-win" solutions reflecting the country’s oft-stated desire for a "harmonious world."
There were reasons for such hope. Over the last couple of decades, China has settled most border disputes with its neighbors. It has focused on economic development and strengthening regional and global cooperation, joining almost all international regimes from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the World Trade Organization. And it has participated in virtually every regional forum in East Asia focused on security cooperation and peaceful settlement of disputes.
Chinese leaders repeatedly had asserted that the United States, China and other nations were in the "same boat" facing global challenges, ranging from climate change and energy security to terrorism, proliferation and pandemics. Beijing’s actions seemed to be largely consistent with its insistence that it would "never seek hegemony."
But China’s posture shifted about a year ago. It began with the testy arrogance of Chinese officials toward President Barack Obama at the Copenhagen, Denmark, climate summit and got worse in the months that followed.
There was China’s overreaction to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, followed by more aggressive maneuvers from its military. A confrontation in Hanoi, Vietnam, between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi over Clinton’s assertion of U.S. interest in peaceful settlement of disputes in the region.
Then China bristled when Japan detained the captain of a Chinese fishing boat off a disputed island, and imposed an unacknowledged short-term embargo on shipments of rare earths to Japan.
And China has alienated much of the world with its misguided effort to bully countries into not attending Friday’s ceremony in Oslo, Norway, in which the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in his absence.
The good news is that there are indications that China is reassessing its recent foreign policy behavior. Many Chinese analysts and officials seem to recognize that China must readjust its policies to win back friends and favorably influence neighbors.
China already has backed off its more confrontational policies toward its neighbors and is seeking to stabilize and improve relations with the United States. But the economic relationship may be in for continued rocky times, especially over currency valuations, as a result of the failure of the Group of 20 to make substantial progress on global rebalancing.
The Chinese are also grappling with their North Korea conundrum, as their supposed "ally" once again sets the world on edge with bizarre, apocalyptic aggression — Western critics are right to assail China’s failure to terminate the 65-year failed experiment in feudal communism on its own border.
The Obama administration has gotten Beijing’s attention by strongly signaling that its recent behavior in Asia is unacceptable and by loudly advertising that the United States is strengthening ties with regional states, is strongly committed to regional peace and security, and will remain a major power in the Pacific.
It’s easy to see where this leads. Chinese hard-liners will claim that U.S. actions — from strengthening ties with regional states to sending a carrier battle group into the Yellow Sea — are proof that the United States seeks to contain and weaken China.
They no doubt will press Chinese leaders to take new aggressive measures to counter the U.S. moves, which will no doubt further deepen U.S. suspicions of China’s strategic intentions and lead the U.S. to take new countermeasures, which, of course, could lead to another action-reaction round.
The Washington summit meeting between Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao next month will provide an opportunity to try to break this destructive cycle.
The two sides will need to move beyond the Beijing follies of the last year and resume efforts to follow the path they agreed upon when Obama visited China last year.
In their November 2009 joint statement, Hu and Obama asserted that "they are committed to building a positive, cooperative and comprehensive U.S.-China relationship for the 21st century, and will take concrete actions to steadily build a partnership to address common challenges."
The leadership in both countries needs to take these words seriously. China needs to reassess its foreign policy direction and, at the very least, return to the status quo ante. Washington needs to reassure China that it is still prepared to pursue a "positive, cooperative and comprehensive" relationship with Beijing and that bolstering the U.S. strategic position in Asia need not be at China’s expense.
The real challenge will be for the U.S. and China to find a way to sustain and deepen any improvement in relations and begin to build greater strategic trust and sustained cooperation. That will take leadership on both sides of the Pacific.