Chance to make amends

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 January, 2011, 12:00am

For Beijing, 2010 must have been a year its leaders prefer to see in the rear-view mirror. Instead of cementing China's status as a respected world power, the year saw a series of major diplomatic setbacks that have worsened China's ties with the United States, Europe, Japan and South Korea. The deterioration of China's international image has been so rapid and unexpected that one has to go back two decades - to the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 - to find a comparably negative external environment for Beijing.

The year began when the European Union was still smarting from the humiliation it suffered at the hands of the Chinese during the UN summit on global climate change in Copenhagen in December 2009. Wielding its influence and asserting its interests, China torpedoed the EU's plans at the summit and prevented the passage of any meaningful agreement.

After the Copenhagen debacle, Beijing confronted Washington on arms sales to Taiwan and President Barack Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama. Although these were old issues in bilateral ties, China's histrionics unsettled the Obama administration, which had hoped to strengthen US-China ties as a means to address global and regional challenges. Already, US-China relations were not helped by the persistent controversy over the value of the Chinese currency, a trade issue that became highly politicised when China's growth and American unemployment both reached double-digit levels.

The bottom for Chinese diplomacy nearly fell out in September when Beijing responded with disproportionate harshness to Tokyo's detention of the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler in the waters of the Diaoyu Islands. A shocked and humiliated Japan released the captain, but China paid a dear price: its tough action only confirmed Japanese fears that a powerful China is a threat.

Disaster, as the Chinese staying goes, never comes alone. In late November, North Korea, a Chinese client state, launched an artillery attack against a South Korean island, killing both soldiers and civilians. Instead of condemning its belligerent ally, China tried to trot out the dormant six-party talks to calm down the crisis. But it was initially rebuffed by both the US and South Korea. Since then, military ties between the US, Japan and South Korea have grown closer and stronger, a development that must have greatly troubled Chinese strategists.

If Beijing's missteps towards Japan and South Korea turned potential friends into likely foes close to home, its reaction to the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Liu Xiaobo , a jailed Chinese dissident, must have dented its image throughout the West. Instead of cutting its losses after Liu was awarded the prize, the Chinese government launched a high-profile campaign to demonise the Nobel Committee, harass Liu's family and Chinese human rights activists, bully the Norwegians, and organise a boycott of the award ceremonies. All China accomplished, judging by the unfavourable media coverage, was the opposite. Aside from a fizzled boycott, the media spotlight on China's poor human rights record accentuates for the international community the most unpleasant aspect of the Middle Kingdom: it may have the world's second-largest economy, but it is still a repressive one-party regime.

For Beijing, all is not lost. The year just past might have been a horrible one for Chinese diplomacy, but since most of the damage was self-inflicted, one could expect things to improve this year. Based on preliminary signs, China seems to have started repairing its tarnished international image. To Beijing's credit, it finally got involved in the Korean crisis and apparently restrained the Kim Jong-il regime. Sino-US relations are on the mend as well. US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates will be visiting China for the first time this month. Such a high-level exchange of the two militaries could be part of a process to build mutual confidence. President Hu Jintao's visit to the US later this month should create another opportunity to reset a contentious relationship.

To capitalise on these opportunities, China needs to do more. Psychologically, Beijing must suppress its own hubris and resist the temptation to flaunt its new-found power.

One of the reasons China managed to antagonise many important powers at the same time must be the new Chinese mindset that views the West as caught in an inexorable decline and itself as an unstoppable future superpower. Such a mindset is dangerous and grounded more in wishful thinking than reality.

China should let two concepts guide its foreign policy: strategic restraint and great-power responsibility. In 2010, Chinese policy demonstrated neither. One can only hope that China has learned its lesson and will behave differently in 2011.

Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker '72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College, and an adjunct senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace