The Problem with the Pivot

Ever since the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping opened up his country’s economy in the late 1970s, China has managed to grow in power, wealth, and military might while still maintaining cooperative and friendly relations with most of the world. Until a few years ago, that is, when Beijing seemed to change tack, behaving in a way that alienated its neighbors and aroused suspicion abroad. In December 2009, for example, Beijing’s resistance to compromise at the UN Climate Change Conference angered European countries and the United States. Then, following the January 2010 sale of U.S. arms to Taiwan, the Chinese government suspended a senior U.S.-Chinese security dialogue for the first time and announced unprecedented sanctions against U.S. companies with ties to Taiwan (although it is not clear that the sanctions caused meaningful damage). In July of that year, Beijing angrily protested plans for U.S.–South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, and in September, it excoriated Japan for detaining the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that had rammed a Japanese coast guard ship in disputed waters. To cap off this series of unsettling episodes, Beijing voiced excessive hostility toward democratic countries and imposed economic sanctions on Norway after the Nobel Prize committee awarded the Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo the Peace Prize in October. In a few short months, China had managed to undo much of what it had gained through years of talk about its “peaceful rise.”