BEIJING — China’s high-profile feuds with the United States, along with territorial spats with Southeast Asian neighbors and Japan, showed a more muscular foreign policy in 2010 that called into question Beijing’s promise of a "peaceful rise."
China’s leaders bristled against outside pressure like never before, but they now seem to be dialing back that combativeness. Beijing is working to ease tensions with the United States ahead of a high-profile visit by the president to Washington next month, and is working to maintain steady economic growth and reassure the region that it is a constructive player.
A more aggressive China could still emerge, but the country’s leaders — wary of taking risks and obsessed with economic growth — don’t appear prepared for that just yet.
"Beijing is tactically adjusting to a disastrous diplomatic year," said Michael Green, a top Asia adviser during the George W. Bush administration.
While Beijing has feuded with countries from South Korea to Norway, its ties with Washington — considered China’s most important foreign relationship — have been especially troubled over the past year.
The United States and China have deeply intertwined interests, but Washington also regularly criticizes Beijing’s massive trade surplus, its human rights record at home and economic policies that U.S. lawmakers say cost American jobs.
Early this year, the sides sparred over a $6.4 billion U.S. weapons sale to China’s rival Taiwan, President Barack Obama’s meeting with exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama — reviled for what Beijing says is a drive for the Himalayan region’s independence — and Google’s decision to stop censoring its search results in China.
China froze military-to-military contacts with the United States in response to the Taiwan arms sales, although those ties are now improving. Beijing will host U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates next month for a long-delayed visit.
Also in January, Chinese President Hu Jintao will be feted in Washington by Obama — replete with a state dinner he was denied during the Bush administration.
In the longer term, China must deal with more active U.S. diplomacy in Asia, a sharp contrast with what some believe was a Bush-era neglect of the region. Beijing expressed particular annoyance over Washington’s courtship of Southeast Asian nations, such as Vietnam — and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s assertion that the U.S. has a stake in the countries’ territorial disputes with Beijing.
Beijing, in contrast, has seen ties in the region deteriorate in recent months.
When a South Korean warship was torpedoed in March, killing 46 sailors, China refused to endorse the findings of an international panel that blamed longtime Chinese ally North Korea. Just weeks later, China hosted North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, alarming citizens in the South.
Nor did China criticize the North after it shelled a South Korean island in November, killing four and sending tensions on the Korean peninsula soaring.
As a result, Seoul, whose biggest trading partner is China, proceeded to ignore Beijing’s calls for restraint, staging massive military drills, and its suggestion of emergency nuclear consultations with the North.
Ties with traditional rival Japan also hit their roughest patch in five years over the detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain accused of ramming a Japanese patrol boat. Beijing appalled Tokyo by demanding compensation and an apology even after winning the captain’s release.
Public opinion surveys in South Korea and Japan have registered levels of worry about China’s military not seen in years.
Farther afield, Beijing unleashed a flood of invective and froze some contacts with Norway following the Nobel Committee’s decision there to award its Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo.
Then, just before Christmas, China parried with the Vatican over the right to appoint bishops, ending an unspoken arrangement that had largely kept the peace between the sides for the past five years.
Can China turn things around in 2011 and blunt impressions that the government is throwing its weight around?
Officials continue, at least, to pay lip service to the promised peaceful rise — a slogan meant to allay concerns that China would follow the familiar rising powers that come into conflict with the established powers. China’s leadership has also judged that avoiding friction with other countries is the best way to keep the economy humming.
"Peaceful development is the only right path. The more developed China is, the more it needs to strengthen cooperation with the rest of the world and the more it needs a peaceful and stable international environment," China’s top diplomat, state counselor Dai Bingguo, wrote in a year-end commentary.
As it tries to make good on that promise, look for more efforts from Beijing to boost "soft power," including perhaps continuing the expansion of its state media’s overseas presence and pouring more resources into Confucius Institutes to teach Chinese language and culture. A milder tone in the state-controlled media would also be an indication that Beijing wants to smooth things over.
China is also expected to increase its participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions and Gulf of Aden anti-piracy patrols as a way to ease worries over rising Chinese military capabilities.
Yet the pressure of a domestic audience that seeks a harder line may be hard to resist.
Officers in the People’s Liberation Army have grown more outspoken in their criticism of the West and Japan, sentiments that dovetail with rising nationalism. China’s weathering of the global financial crisis has also boosted the government’s willingness to demand a greater voice in international institutions. China eclipsed Japan this year as the world’s second biggest economy after three decades of blistering growth that put overtaking the United States within reach.
The restiveness of minority areas in Tibet and Xinjiang and a looming leadership transition also push leaders toward hardline positions.
And for decades to come, Chinese will continue to cast their country’s rise as a struggle for pre-eminence with Washington.
"The U.S. will never allow China to challenge its leadership and will try to ‘contain’ China’s rise," analysts Zheng Jie and Zhong Feiteng wrote in a regional security report for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released this week.