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 neighbours 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 behaviour, 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. Neighbours 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.”