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The Limits of China’s Charm Offensive

BRUSSELS – To many people in the West, China seems to have gone from a country that “keeps a cool head and maintains a low profile,” in Deng Xiaoping’s formulation, to one that loves a good international bust-up. Putting an Australian mining executive behind bars for ten years, squeezing out Google, keeping the European Union at bay for an important dialogue, and letting a mid-level official wag his finger at US President Barack Obama at the Copenhagen Climate summit is not, after all, the best way to convince partners of your constructive intentions.

Nor is it reassuring to recall that China, up to now, has been stubbornly watering down sanctions on Iran, investing in major offensive military systems, and pillorying Western leaders for irresponsible financial policies and protectionism. But the point in reciting this litany is not so much to highlight China’s wayward behavior as it is to demonstrate the dilemma in which the country finds itself: if it behaves like a “normal” power, the world will forget the many hundreds of millions of people that it still needs to pull out of poverty.

The Chinese leadership seems to be aware of this dilemma and is not, in fact, eager to be dragged into fierce competition with the West or its neighbors. During the recent National People’s Congress, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stressed that China should not punch above its weight, and that the People’s Republic still needs stability if it is to become a society that offers a decent life to all of its citizens.

In recognition of this, China has stepped up its efforts to mend fences. President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington was a clear attempt to de-escalate tensions with the US over American arms sales to Taiwan, the renminbi’s exchange rate, and Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama. China will likely go to great lengths to foster a more positive attitude among the dozens of European leaders visiting this year’s World Expo in Shanghai.