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Is China Strong or Weak?

IRVINE, CALIFORNIA – China’s government has been using unusually strong language of late to assert its sovereignty over disputed stretches of international waters near to its shores. This has led to a ratcheting up of tensions, in particular between China and the United States, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressing that the Obama administration is now ready to step in and help ensure the fair adjudication of disputes relating to the South China Sea. Chinese spokesmen denounced this as a throwback to the days when America thought it could, and should, try to “contain” the People’s Republic.

One way to interpret China’s elevated rhetoric – and its tough response to joint US-South Korean military maneuvers – is as another indication that Chinese leaders have grown supremely self-confident and are eager to throw their weight around. The reality, though, is more complex. A closer look reveals that President Hu Jintao’s words and deeds are often shaped by a mixture of insecurity and cockiness, and that Chinese officials alternate between playing up and playing down the country’s rise.

Of course, there are moments when China’s leaders do seem like people who know that they are succeeding and want others to acknowledge it. Even before the current diplomatic controversies, China’s leaders were gleefully drawing attention to how much more effective their stimulus package had been than Obama’s in countering the negative effects of the financial crisis.

And yet, when news broke last month that China had officially replaced Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, instead of crowing about surpassing a longtime rival and having the top spot, held by the US, in its sights, the government issued statements emphasizing that theirs remains a “poor, developing” country.