Recent diplomatic and economic disputes between China and the West have caught many by surprise. It wasn’t all that long ago that China could do no wrong. Besides its seemingly unstoppable economic growth, the country was said to be acquiring soft power, earning respect and charming its way around the world. Its leaders were regarded as smart, sophisticated and far-sighted. Its diplomats were praised as diligent, knowledgeable and smooth.
It’s doubtful that such adjectives would be applied to them today.
Economically, Beijing’s mercantilist trade policy is seen by many as one of the principal causes of global economic imbalances. Its foreign policy is criticized as assertive and bullying. Meanwhile, China’s harsh response to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a leading dissident languishing in a Chinese jail cell, has struck nearly everybody in the West as excessive and counterproductive.
So what’s going on? How could a country that had been relatively effective in calming fears of its growing power and portraying its rise as ‘peaceful’ so suddenly engage in such nasty disputes with the same Western powers that have played an essential role in its astonishing economic ascendance? Is this dramatic downturn in relations between China and the West a temporary aberration or a new normal state of affairs?
Before trying to answer this question, it’s necessary to point out that the Chinese themselves—both its leaders and ordinary citizens—don’t see their recent conduct as assertive at all. In their eyes, China has merely been defending its legitimate national interests. There’s nothing wrong with claiming the South China Sea as part of China’s ‘core interests,’ resisting US-led pressures for currency revaluation, confronting Japan over disputed islands, or expanding its economic reach in resource-rich developing countries.
And this is precisely where the problem lies. At one level, it can be seen as a problem of conflicting perceptions: the Chinese and the West simply see the same set of issues from starkly different perspectives. At a deeper level, however, the growing tensions between China and the West originate from more powerful and enduring dynamics. As long as such dynamics continue to shape Chinese definitions of their interests and Western responses, the world is likely to see repeated disagreements or even acrimonious confrontations between China and major Western powers.
The most important—and obvious—dynamic at work is the rapid shift of the balance of power between the West and China. An inevitable consequence of this shift, which has strengthened China rapidly in relative terms, is how Chinese elites perceive their interests and pursue them. Before China acquired its current economic, diplomatic and military capabilities, some realists in the West predicted that China would act like a great power when it became one, regardless of its rhetorical commitment to a ‘peaceful rise.’ Recent Chinese foreign policy conduct seems to have vindicated this forecast.