Meet the hardliners who now run China's foreign policy

“We see a totally different China now,” says one senior Southeast Asian official. “You can see their real face now.” Indeed, what makes all this so remarkable is that, a mere ten years ago, Chinese foreign policy was the very opposite of provocative; it was restrained and modest. But the government in Beijing has undergone a dramatic internal transformation over the past decade. And that transformation has profoundly changed the way China relates to the rest of the world…

Scared of Beijing’s new demeanor, other countries in Asia are desperately seeking the help of the United States. In July, Southeast Asian nations formally invited the United States to join the East Asia Summit, a regional group, partly to balance China. Southeast Asian states also have pushed the White House to help protect their interests in the disputed South China Sea. Vietnam has built a close relationship with its former enemy, opening its ports to U.S. ships. While Japan, under the new Democratic Party government, had wanted to reduce its dependence on the United States, in recent months Tokyo has all but given up trying to build closer ties to China and has returned to shoring up its alliance with the United States. “What is different about this crisis is that it has led people to think that maybe we [Japan] have to reconsider relations with China, even if it means sacrificing trade,” Masaru Kohno, an expert on regional relations at Waseda University in Tokyo, told The Christian Science Monitor. Meanwhile, in Europe, frustration with China is building as well. “European leaders are increasingly critical of China, at least in private,” notes Charles Grant of the Center for European Reform.

What remains to be seen, though, is whether the new foreign policy establishment in China cares enough about these consequences to reverse course. If the PLA’s apparent stunt during Gates’s visit to Beijing is any indication, then the answer is no. Moreover, when Hu Jintao steps down in 2012, the presumed heir—Xi Jinping—will, according to numerous Chinese officials, have even less personal power. “Xi Jinping is very low-profile and cautious,” prominent political analyst Li Datong told The Washington Post last year. He has weak ties to the military and few powerful supporters among the uniformed brass. Judging from a rant against foreign countries he unleashed in Mexico in 2009, he seems to have some nationalist inclinations; but, even if he didn’t, he would be unlikely to defy the PLA or the other hawkish constituencies he will have to please. And so, for those Chinese officials who believe that Beijing’s foreign policy is backfiring, things are not looking up. “We need to go back to the strategies of the 2000s,” one Chinese diplomat told me. “I’m not sure that’s likely, though.”