As U.S. Pivots Toward Asia, China Looks to Strengthen Itself

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The “pivot” to Asia, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the new U.S. focus on the region, has given China plenty of reasons to feel uncomfortable. During President Obama’s nine-day trip to Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia, he called on China to behave as a “grown-up” economy and abide by global trade rules. In Australia Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced plans to station up to 2,500 U.S. Marines in the northern port city of Darwin and at other Australian bases, which some analysts said was designed to help check the growing military strength of China.

At the ASEAN summit in Bali, Obama announced that Clinton would visit Burma, the first trip by a U.S. Secretary of State in more than 50 years, signaling a possible thaw in relations between the U.S. and military-run Burma, a neighbor of China. Obama also pushed the development of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade accord between nine Asia-Pacific economies that so far excludes China. And during the leaders retreat at the ASEAN East Asia summit, a majority of leaders chose to raise the continuing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, according to a unnamed senior U.S. official.

China had previously said that issue was inappropriate for the regional forum, and that the South China Seas disputes could only be handled in one-on-one consultations between the rival claimants. So it was perhaps understandable that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao sounded “grouchy” at first when he replied to their concerns. The U.S. official went on to say Wen’s comments were “very measured and interesting,” and that the Chinese leader reiterated that “China shares the desire articulated by the ASEAN countries, for a cooperative process to reach a code of conduct on the South China Sea.” China’s state-run Xinhua news service said that while Wen objected to discussing the South China Sea dispute, he agreed to as it had already been raised. The ASEAN summit “is not the appropriate place to talk about this issue. However, leaders of some countries mentioned China on the issue. It’s impolite not to make a return for what one receives. So, I am willing to reiterate China’s stance,” he said, according to Xinhua.

The U.S. official described Wen’s comments as, “Positive in the sense that he was not on a tirade, and he did not use many of the more assertive formulas that we frequently hear from the Chinese, particularly in public.” That may reflect a willingness on China’s part to tone down the South China Sea dispute and to respond to the renewed American activity in Asia with calm. China’s growing military prowess and its sometimes assertive stance towards  over territorial disputes has worried some of its neighbors, and eased efforts by the U.S. to rebuilt its regional clout. A commentary in today’s Global Times, a tabloid owned by the Chinese Communist Party, urged a cautious response to this new American activity in the region. “By increasing this pressure, the United States wants to cause panic and disarray within China,” the paper said. “To deal with this, the best answer is to continue sound and rapid development. China’s unceasing strengthening will further change Asian countries’ mentality on how they choose their position between the U.S. and China.”

Along a similar line, Tsinghua University scholar Yan Xuetong wrote an op-ed for today’s New York Times on “How China Can Defeat America.” He argues that the best course for China to expand its global clout is to focus on improving itself. He writes:

How, then, can China win people’s hearts across the world? According to ancient Chinese philosophers, it must start at home. Humane authority begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad. This means China must shift its priorities away from economic development to establishing a harmonious society free of today’s huge gaps between rich and poor. It needs to replace money worship with traditional morality and weed out political corruption in favor of social justice and fairness.

Of course, that’s advice that the U.S. could benefit from as well.

Austin Ramzy is Beijing correspondent for TIME. Find him on Twitter at @austinramzy. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.