If the dominant view is correct-that Xi Jinping is now firmly in control of China-it means that he must really believe in his extremist positions.
Either way, Xi is roiling Chinese politics at the moment. For one thing, he is purging political opponents under the guise of a crackdown on corruption. One of these probes, against Zhou Yongkang, breaks the most sacred rule of Chinese communist politics. To heal the Party's grievous wounds caused by Mao Zedong's decade-long Cultural Revolution, leaders in the early part of the 1980s, after the trial of the Gang of Four, decided that no member or former member of the Politburo Standing Committee could be investigated. Those at the apex of political power were immune from prosecution.
The theory was that if leaders knew they would not be hunted down, as they were in the Cultural Revolution, they would be willing to withdraw gracefully after losing political struggles. In other words, Deng Xiaoping, Mao's crafty successor, reduced the incentive for political figures to fight to the end and, as a result, tear the Communist Party apart.
Xi Jinping, however, is reversing the process and upping the stakes, something evident in the tribulations of Mr. Zhou, the former internal security chief, as well as the more famous Bo Xilai, once China's most openly ambitious politician, who is now serving a life term after an incompetently run show trial last August. The widespread use of criminal penalties is a sign that China is returning to a period that many thought was long past.
Last year, then Premier Wen Jiabao warned that China could descend into another Cultural Revolution. Observers at the time thought he was being melodramatic. He probably was not. China is on the edge, taking wrong turns at the moment.
Most foreign policy establishments in Washington and other capitals are doing their best to ignore what is happening in Beijing. They have always hoped that China could become a partner for the U.S., rather than another Soviet Union or, worse, a 1930s Germany or Japan.
And this leads us to the central question in Sino-U.S. ties today: How are we going to develop good relations with a China that, out of weakness or strength, is roiling the world?
Almost everyone says we need to talk to the Chinese because we talked to the Soviets. Talking, the argument goes, will build good relations or, at the very least, will avoid miscommunications and misunderstandings.
The argument sounds compelling. After all, who can be against good relations? Who can be in favor of miscommunication and misunderstanding?
Since the early 1970s, however, the U.S. has talked to China in every conceivable format, formal and informal, bilateral and multilateral, secret and announced. Discussions have been held in Washington and Beijing and many places in between. There have been state visits, the Strategic and Economic Dialogues, and even the "shirtsleeves summit" in southern California in June.
During the previous administration, the number of ongoing bilateral forums between China and the U.S. reached fifty. Today, there are about 90 of them.
Yet as the interactions between American and Chinese officials have increased dramatically during the Obama administration and the last one, ties between the two nations have remained strained.
Obviously something is wrong. We have talked about what is wrong in China. We also need to think about what is wrong on our side. There are three things we are getting wrong.
First, we do not understand how the Chinese think. We fervently believe that if we try hard enough, the Chinese will have to respond in kind. This is a product of our reasoning that we are people, the Chinese are people, we respond to gestures of friendship, so the Chinese will respond favorably to our friendly gestures. By now we should have learned that this line of reasoning, which has a surface logic to it, is faulty because it has not in fact produced good outcomes.
Chinese leaders do not distrust us because they have insufficient contact with us. They distrust us because they see themselves as the protector of an ideology threatened by free societies.
The mistrust is inherent in their one-party state. It can never be relieved as long as the Communist Party remains in power. As Ronald Reagan taught us, the nature of regimes matters.
In short, illiberal regimes cannot maintain enlightened foreign policies, at least over the long term. So we should not be surprised that China cannot compromise or maintain good relations with its neighbors, the international community, with us.
The second thing we get wrong about China is that we believe that it is safe to ignore periodic Chinese threats to incinerate our cities and wage war on us, like the reports that appeared in state media in October 2013 boasting how Chinese submarines can launch missiles with nuclear warheads that can kill tens of millions of Americans.
These are real threats and every time we fail to respond to them, the concept of deterrence erodes. Already, Shen Dengli of Fudan University in Shanghai tells us, in public, that we have "no guts" to stand up to China.
Bad things happen when your adversary does not respect you.
The third thing we get wrong about China is that we think is it inadvisable to call the Chinese out in public. In 2012, for instance, we learned that the Chinese military sold the North Koreans at least six transporter-erector-launchers-TELs-for their newest missile, the KN-08. And we said nothing to the Chinese in public.
Why is that omission important? Because we are not that concerned at this moment with North Korea's longest-range launchers being used as weapons. These launchers take weeks to transport, assemble, fuel, and test.
We can destroy them on the pad. We are, however, concerned about the nuclear-capable, road-mobile KN-08, which can hide and shoot. We should remember that the Pentagon last March cited the KN-08 as one of the principal reasons for going ahead with 14 additional ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California.
So Beijing substantially increased North Korea's ability to wage nuclear war on us, and we acted as if it did not matter. Personally speaking, not offending the Chinese is low on my list of priorities.
And our bashfulness has other consequences. The Chinese, with justification, complain that we are not being transparent with them about the "pivot." We keep on saying that the pivot has nothing to do with them, yet we are rotating B-52s through Australia and B-52s and B-2s through Guam and the Chinese have to be asking what that is all about.
We need to be able to say, in public and in clear tones, that the pivot is all about them, that the pivot is about ensuring peace and stability in the region and they are the ones threatening it.
If we cannot say those things clearly, the Chinese will think we are afraid of them. If they think we are afraid of them, they will act accordingly. I repeat: bad things happen when your adversary does not respect you.
Let me put all that we have just talked about into context. Chinese leaders, it is true, have not launched a large-scale invasion since 1979. Instead, they employ salami-slicing tactics, to grab territory in increments, so that they do not invite retaliation. For instance, they successfully salami-sliced Scarborough Shoal.
The Chinese were not the first to use this clever stratagem. We actually know where they learned this because the Chinese were the victims of these same tactics. The hardline Japanese military in the 1930s kept grabbing chunks of northeastern China.
The Chinese then were continually pushed back and humiliated. In the second half of 1937, there was a feeling in Chinese circles that, although Nationalist forces were no match for Japan's, Chiang Kai-shek had no choice but to fight back.
Chiang ultimately made his stand after Japanese soldiers fired on his troops in July of that year in a minor-and undoubtedly accidental-scrap at the Marco Polo Bridge, a few miles southwest of what is now the Chinese capital.
This is, of course, a lesson for us today. The parallels between then and now are striking.
Then, the Japanese military, like the Chinese military today, was emboldened by success and was ultra-nationalist. Then, like now, civilians controlled Asia's biggest army only loosely. Then, the media publicized the idea that Japan was being surrounded by hostile powers that wished to prevent its rise. That is exactly what the Communist Party says today about China.
Instead of ignoring Beijing's current salami tactics, as Washington does, we should be alive to the fact that countries on China's periphery, pushed to the limit by Beijing's unrelenting belligerence, could very well be forced into the same decision that Chiang Kai-shek made in 1937, to resist aggression with force of arms.
Let us all remember, World War II started not on the plains of Europe in 1939 but near Beijing two years before.
We live in an era defined by the absence of major war, but this peace may not last. At this moment, we do not know whether a Chinese political system in turmoil will drive the country to become the aggressor of the 21st century, but we should be prepared.
We live in consequential times.