Maybe it's just the growing pains of an adolescent superpower, but China has begun to flex its newfound muscles in ways inconsistent with its "peaceful rise." Its bullying behavior demands a firm pushback from the United States - starting next month when Chinese President Hu Jintao comes to Washington for talks with President Obama.
The unmistakably imperious trend in China's conduct has definitely caught the world's attention. Take its recent arm-twisting campaign to prevent nations from participating in a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Liu Xiaobo, a prominent democracy activist serving an 11-year sentence for subversion. Nineteen countries caved shamelessly to China's demands. In a display of insecurity worthy of Burma's insular and paranoid junta, the government also cracked down on domestic dissidents and barred travel to Oslo.
This tantrum followed yet another unprovoked spasm of violence last month from North Korea, whose sole ally is China. Not only did Beijing refuse to criticize Pyongyang for shelling a South Korean island, it also blocked efforts in the UN Security Council to condemn the North's aggression. Last spring, China also refused to even acknowledge the North's sinking of a South Korean patrol boat, which claimed dozens of lives. Like an over-indulgent parent, China is enabling rather than restraining North Korea's belligerence.
Also raising hackles among China's neighbors is its increasingly strident assertion of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea. In September, Beijing escalated a confrontation with Japan over some disputed islands, jailing several Japanese businessmen and rationing exports of rare earth metals essential to Japanese industry.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, has been keeping a watchful eye on China's military buildup. At a PPI forum on Sino-American relations last week, Chip Gregson, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Security Affairs, and a former Marine Corps commander, minced no words: "It is becoming increasingly evident that China is pursuing a long-term, comprehensive military buildup that could upend the regional security balance."
True, the United States spends 4.5 times more on defense than China, and no one doubts Beijing's right to protect the supply lines that feed its mighty export machine. But U.S. analysts believe China's naval expansion also aims at denying U.S. forces access to the region. In a report for PPI, Michael Chase of the U.S. Naval War College notes that China's intention isn't to match our navy ship for ship, but to "develop asymmetric war-fighting capabilities that deter American military intervention by driving up its cost."
Meanwhile, U.S. cyber-security officials believe China already is waging an aggressive cyber-war against U.S. companies, the Pentagon and other government agencies. According to news reports, China's "patriotic hackers" seem to be operating with the tacit support if not outright encouragement of the government.
Such conduct calls into question a key premise of U.S. policy - that China eventually will mature into a responsible global stakeholder. What if Beijing has other ideas? "China has become a revolutionary power," asserts Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations. That seems exaggerated: China, after all, has reaped enormous benefits from integrating into the world's liberal trade and investment regime. Washington needs to underscore its responsibilities to the system that has allowed China's stupendous growth.
For example, President Obama should put human rights at the center, not the periphery, of his talks next month in Washington with Chinese President Hu Jintao. He should also protest against Beijing's efforts to control civil society organizations by insisting that foreign contributions to them be channeled through state-controlled banks.
It's also time to make clear that China's blank check to North Korea is a serious irritant in Sino-American relations, not a diplomatic sideshow. It's not enough to call for a resumption of six-party talks over the North's nuclear program; Beijing needs to use what leverage it possesses to discourage the Kim dynasty from provoking a shooting war on the Korean peninsula that would drag America in.
U.S. officials also should work toward a détente in cyber-espionage, lest our government be compelled to retaliate to create a deterrent. And Obama should step up talks with China's anxious neighbors about maintaining a military balance of power in East Asia. To avoid any appearance of organizing an anti-China coalition, Washington should press for creation of a regional security forum for the East Pacific, like Europe's Conference on Security and Cooperation, to hash out territorial and other disputes.
U.S. policy makers are right to assume that a collision between the United States and the West and China is not inevitable. It is only natural that China craves an international role commensurate with its status as the world's 2nd biggest economy. It wants - and deserves - a seat on the world's steering committee, but only on the condition that it respect the interests of others and accept responsibilities to the international community.