It was a bleak moment for the foreign-policy specialists in the central government in Beijing when Hillary Clinton’s plane touched down in Rangoon in early December 2011. For several years, China had been the one steadfast friend of Burma's ever more isolated military regime. It was thus able to enjoy something approaching an economic monopoly there, even if India sought to press its interests in the resource-rich but isolated south Asian country.
Beijing had advance warning of an autumn chill when Barack Obama declared during his visit to Asia in late November that the United States was, after its post-9/11 diversions in the middle east and Afghanistan, now back and fully focused on its Pacific interests. For China, such sentiments evoke the fear that the US is becoming more involved than it would like in the affairs of its neighbours.
But the pattern is longer still. For in mid-2010, the US secretary of state said - in the context of flare-ups between Japan and China over disputed maritime borders - that both the South and East China Seas were legitimate areas of American’s strategic interest. Such consistency in the US’s pronouncements and behaviour over the last eighteen months suggests that it is indeed "back", strategically and psychologically, in east Asia. Many in Beijing see this refocus as an effort to thwart, frustrate and challenge a China that itself now has more ability to assert its key interests.
The ingredients of China's calculations are familiar. They concern contests over borders and territory, access to economic and energy resources, and its capacity to influence the international system in ways the authorities in Beijing deem benign.
Many high-level Chinese regard the US's sheer ubiquity as almost a never-ending nightmare they hope one day to wake from. The US has a significant presence in South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. But more distressingly now, it is in places such as Vietnam (which could now obtain weapons from the US, something unthinkable even a few years ago), Pakistan, and Mongolia. All around China’s edges, it can seem from Beijing, the US seems to be cropping up - even intent on a creeping mission of containment.
Only with regards to North Korea (the DPRK) can China feel any certainty that the US is absent - and even there, the leadership in Pyongyang harbours a deep-seated objctive one day to negotiate directly with Washington. To put it another way: once the endless rhetoric of friendship fades, the shallowness of Chinese strategic alliances can appear both surprising and shocking.
A new language
This predicament is a clue to China's recent diplomatic behaviour, which has been a classic mixture of reassuring "peace-and-harmony speak" and permission to various agents of the central state to act with a sort of bolshie unilateralism. China's much-vaunted "peaceful rise" now includes sea-captains having brawls with South Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese vessels, and shrill denunciations of India for hosting the Dalai Lama to a religious conference (during the aborted first day of scheduled border talks, at the end of November 2011).
Such more combative behaviour in recent months can be seen as reflecting Beijing's frustration that its economic clout has outrun its political impact - and that its foreign-policy apparatus has simply been unprepared for the range and depth of questions that would confront it as it became an economic behemoth. In this perspective, China's fundamental policy stances - not seeking leadership, non-interference in the affairs of others - recall a time when it was an isolated and politically introspective country recovering from a devastating international and civil war, and obsessed with its endless domestic political campaigns. Today, in a world where China's footprint appears across the world, they are increasingly incongruous and ineffective. Yet no one in Beijing seems willing to challenge them, far less propose others adequate to the realities of 21st-century global politics.
The route to addressing the problem begins by acknowledging the obvious, that China - like every power - has legitimate international interests, but that it needs a far more convincing voice with which to express these. Its current leadership has been reluctant to, or simply incapable of, crafting a way of speaking to the world that ensures its words are believed and claims trusted. If China is worried about the prevalence of the US around its borders, then it needs to find a rhetoric - or perhaps better, a register - that enables it authentically to fight back. Sun Zi, after all - the Chinese themselves are fond of pointing out - stated over two millennium ago that the best victories are won before any physical conflict becomes necessary.
China’s greatest disadvantage in this new war for international hearts and minds is its political model. Most of the rest of the world finds it outmoded and/or hard to understand, yet it is linked to a specific ideology and a language which governs the Chinese elite's modes of expression. China's politicians are thus saddled with a stiff and inexpressive vocabulary with which to talk to the outside world and their own people. If they were able to escape from it, many of China’s demands as a country - its need for energy, concern over territory, fear of international containment - are easy enough to understand, even if disagreements over them continue (as is quite natural).
The new generation of Chinese leaders would do itself and the rest of the world a big favour if it revised and refreshed the stilted, highly unnatural way in which they talk about issues that matter to them. The world in 2012 awaits a Chinese leader with the ability to speak naturally and comfortably to the world. Perhaps only when he emerges will the United States and others start both to take Beijing's legitimate fears more seriously and to engage in a proper discussion about what the balance of power and interest in Asia should be. Now that so much of the world's economic, political and military power is located there, that cannot happen soon enough.
Get our weekly email