Not long ago, China was a soft-power juggernaut. Media accounts highlighted Chinese leaders' thoughtful forays abroad, depicting policymakers that were respectful of others' opinions, willing to listen, humble to a fault and reluctant to dispense unsolicited advice. Here was a country that was content to allow its own example of success to speak for itself.
Those days are over. Today, China, like many large countries, is allowing its internal political battles to shape how it interacts with the world, especially with neighbors whose sensitivities it seems entirely willing to ignore. (Indeed, with alarm bells sounding throughout the region, the United States' “pivot to Asia,” widely derided for its clumsy rollout and unintended consequences, now seems wise and prudent.)
A country's historical experience exerts a powerful force on its contemporary behavior, and China is no exception. Since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, European states, with some notable exceptions, have understood the basic rules of the diplomatic game; moreover, they have had considerable success exporting Westphalian concepts -- particularly that of sovereign equality under international law -- to many other parts of the globe.
China's legacy is different. Neighbors have not been equals so much as tributary states. Alliances have often been conceived as representing little more than a calculation that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Today, China is widely described in Southeast Asia as a bully, disrespectful of others' opinions, let alone their interests. Nowhere is this more evident than with the countries surrounding the South China Sea, the lifeblood of maritime Southeast Asia and of China's northeastern neighbors, Korea and Japan. China seeks to turn the South China Sea into a southern Chinese lake, and has included sovereignty over a disputed group of rocks in the East China Sea among its so-called core interests.
Scores of countries around the world have conflicting territorial claims, especially in maritime matters. But most observe a rule that is deeply embedded in international law and custom: Claims should be pursued peacefully and by mutual consent. Unilateral assertion of such claims creates tension and increases the threat of violent conflict -- often the result of miscalculation or accident.
In November, China unilaterally established an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea. In the South China Sea, it has recently introduced a notification system for fishing. Given China's assertions of territorial claims, no one is buying its portrayal of these moves as safety procedures; rather, they are seen as part of a cynical exercise in “salami tactics” -- gaining de facto sovereignty over disputed territory one slice at a time.
It is highly unlikely that China's leaders are concerned that longstanding claims by Southeast Asian countries like Brunei could soon be realized, or that Chinese claims could be lost to history. Given the extent to which China's foreign policy is shaped by the pursuit of long-term raw-material supplies -- including the South China Sea's hydrocarbon reserves -- could the claims be economic in nature?
Perhaps. But another explanation seems at least equally compelling: China's domestic political tensions.
Chinese leaders and strategic thinkers (groups that do not always overlap) often talk of China's aversion to the disorderliness of democracy. China's political system, they assure us, is more disciplined and decisive.
But all political systems must address conflicting interests, and when the process is carried out in informal channels, infighting can soon devolve into a brawl. And China's institutions are pitted against one another as never before. The internal security services compete against the military for resources and influence, and both compete against civilian institutions.
Moreover, one government agency often has no idea what another is doing. Adjudication of institutional competition sometimes must go all the way to the top, where Chinese leaders struggle to maintain control and balance.
Indeed, despite appearances, President Xi Jinping's reform agenda involves not so much a grand vision of the future -- what Xi calls the “Chinese Dream” -- as a capacity to navigate the complex political calculations that need to be made to ensure that everyone will be satisfied enough not to rebel. One can only imagine the inbox of problems that he confronts every morning.
Above all, Xi must maintain a strong relationship with the security and military bureaucracy. Without their support, he will not succeed in implementing the reforms that China needs in order to avoid the so-called middle-income trap. So he could be doing what leaders everywhere must do: picking his battles and setting his priorities. Moreover, given that nationalism in China often serves as a proxy for popular frustration with the authorities, one can see why the government, not wishing to be outflanked, has not placed Japanese, Filipino, South Korean or Vietnamese sensitivities among its top priorities.
And yet, unless China improves its relations with its neighbors, its international image will continue to take a beating. It could start with a more respectful attitude toward the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Chinese leaders' insistence on bilateral negotiations with ASEAN's members, rather than with the bloc as a whole, has done nothing but fuel anxiety and resentment in the region.
Nor will China get very far with the spurious argument that the US is somehow stirring up regional hostility against it, as if such mischief would be in the long-term interest of an America that already has enough on its plate. Instead, China should encourage the development of multilateral structures -- again, beginning with ASEAN -- that can manage the economic benefits of disputed territories. Good fences, as the saying goes, make good neighbors.
*Christopher R. Hill, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is the dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. © Project Syndicate 2014