June 14th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Zakaria: Beijing's foreign policy blunders

What caught my eye this week was an interesting twist in the story we all keep reading about – the rise of China. But, this time, it's not about China's growing power and confidence, but of a China that realized it might have overplayed its hand and is correcting itself. It all played out at a small conference in Singapore's fancy Shangri-La Hotel.

First, let's go back to 2010. Beijing had emerged relatively unscathed from the financial crisis. It had put on the greatest show on earth, the Beijing Olympics. Countries from around the world were courting it like never before.

And then, China's confidence turned into overconfidence, even arrogance. In quick succession, Beijing picked separate fights around the South China Seas with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. China angered South Korea by not condemning aggression from the North - from Pyongyang - which sunk a South Korean ship.

All these Asian countries have been relatively sanguine about the rise of China. Suddenly, they began to realize that it presented not just economic opportunities of big market for them but challenges, even threats. So they spoke out against what they saw as Chinese bullying and aggression and they became far more solicitous of America.

This could not have pleased China. This was not the peaceful rise strategy that Beijing have long talked about.

But Chinese officials said little about all this publicly, so no one knew if they believed they had overplayed their hand. After all, they could just as easily have taken the view that the world was envious and was ganging up on them and that they would just bide their time.

Which brings us back to that hotel in Singapore. Every year for the last 10 years the Shangri-La Dialogue is the place where defense representatives from 28 Asia-Pacific nations meet. For the first time ever, China sent its defense minister, General Liang Guanglie.

Liang repeatedly told his audience that China was a peace-loving country, with a defense policy that is purely defensive in nature. Liang focused on cooperation, peace and security.

The speech was a clear affirmation of the peaceful rise strategy that had also been affirmed by China's top foreign policy official. But to hear it from the military, which is far more hawkish, was something quite new.

China's neighbors were still nervous. At the same summit, the defense secretaries from the Philippines and Vietnam both said they were worried about maritime challenges from other countries. Of course, they meant China. And their words were bolstered by rare anti-China demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Now, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also attended the Shangri-La Dialogue. The American speech was one of reassurance to China's neighbors. Gates focused on commitment, relationships and talk of a presence in the region.

So, China pushed too hard and then drew back.

The United States signaled to other Asian countries that it was not going anywhere.

The great game of Asian geopolitics has just begun.

I have a feeling we're all going to be watching these moves and countermoves for years to come.

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Topics: China • Diplomacy • East Asia • Military • United States • What in the World?

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