China's spats call into question 'peaceful rise'

By Christopher Bodeen

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 29 2010 4:26 a.m. MST

In this Oct. 1, 2009, photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, the phalanx of the Chinese national flag receives inspection in a parade in Beijing during the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of People's Republic of China. China's high-profile feuds with the United States, along with territorial spats with Southeast Asian neighbors and Japan, showed a more muscular foreign policy in 2010 that called into question Beijing's promise of a "peaceful rise."

Associated Press

BEIJING — China's high-profile feuds with the United States, along with territorial spats with Southeast Asian neighbors and Japan, showed a more muscular foreign policy in 2010 that called into question Beijing's promise of a "peaceful rise."

China's leaders bristled against outside pressure like never before, but they now seem to be dialing back that combativeness. Beijing is working to ease tensions with the United States ahead of a high-profile visit by the president to Washington next month, and is working to maintain steady economic growth and reassure the region that it is a constructive player.

A more aggressive China could still emerge, but the country's leaders — wary of taking risks and obsessed with economic growth — don't appear prepared for that just yet.

"Beijing is tactically adjusting to a disastrous diplomatic year," said Michael Green, a top Asia adviser during the George W. Bush administration.

While Beijing has feuded with countries from South Korea to Norway, its ties with Washington — considered China's most important foreign relationship — have been especially troubled over the past year.

The United States and China have deeply intertwined interests, but Washington also regularly criticizes Beijing's massive trade surplus, its human rights record at home and economic policies that U.S. lawmakers say cost American jobs.

Early this year, the sides sparred over a $6.4 billion U.S. weapons sale to China's rival Taiwan, President Barack Obama's meeting with exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama — reviled for what Beijing says is a drive for the Himalayan region's independence — and Google's decision to stop censoring its search results in China.

China froze military-to-military contacts with the United States in response to the Taiwan arms sales, although those ties are now improving. Beijing will host U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates next month for a long-delayed visit.

Also in January, Chinese President Hu Jintao will be feted in Washington by Obama — replete with a state dinner he was denied during the Bush administration.

In the longer term, China must deal with more active U.S. diplomacy in Asia, a sharp contrast with what some believe was a Bush-era neglect of the region. Beijing expressed particular annoyance over Washington's courtship of Southeast Asian nations, such as Vietnam — and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's assertion that the U.S. has a stake in the countries' territorial disputes with Beijing.

Beijing, in contrast, has seen ties in the region deteriorate in recent months.

When a South Korean warship was torpedoed in March, killing 46 sailors, China refused to endorse the findings of an international panel that blamed longtime Chinese ally North Korea. Just weeks later, China hosted North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, alarming citizens in the South.

Nor did China criticize the North after it shelled a South Korean island in November, killing four and sending tensions on the Korean peninsula soaring.

As a result, Seoul, whose biggest trading partner is China, proceeded to ignore Beijing's calls for restraint, staging massive military drills, and its suggestion of emergency nuclear consultations with the North.

Ties with traditional rival Japan also hit their roughest patch in five years over the detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain accused of ramming a Japanese patrol boat. Beijing appalled Tokyo by demanding compensation and an apology even after winning the captain's release.

Public opinion surveys in South Korea and Japan have registered levels of worry about China's military not seen in years.

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