More insidious explanations remain. One is that a noxious combination of economic growth, military modernization, rising nationalism, and China’s perseverance through the global financial crisis has created a sense of outsized triumphalism.
The most likely — and worrisome — explanation is that domestic priorities drive China’s foreign policies, which are therefore often formulated at the expense of strategic and diplomatic considerations. And while the implications of coercing neighbors and illegally seizing territory are not necessarily desirable, they pale in comparison to the consequences of failing to confront the regime’s existential domestic challenges: economic slowdown, energy insecurity, and the growing political instabilities associated with dead pigs floating in rivers, a potential nationwide outbreak of avian flu, terrible traffic jams, sky-high real estate prices, and unbreathable air. No wonder the Chinese Communist Party works hard to keep populist foreign-policy issues in the headlines.
It would be comforting to learn that the defense white paper’s finger-pointing at the United States was just old-fashioned propaganda, behind which China is reassessing its foreign-policy approach. If domestic politics continue to drive Chinese diplomacy, however, Beijing will likely be unable and unwilling to recalibrate. The result will be an increasingly isolated China.
Perhaps the best hope is that Xi will begin confronting the reality that Beijing’s heavy-handed foreign policies are the principal cause of its rapidly deteriorating security environment.