CHINA'S PROMISE of a "peaceful rise" to great power status sounded reassuring when it was first articulated by President Hu Jintao. As it has taken on substance over the past several years it has rung increasingly hollow. Mr. Hu's idea of "peaceful" so far has included the blunt suppression of democracy in Hong Kong; outreach to rogue regimes around the world, such as Iran and Sudan; double-digit annual increases in defense spending; adoption of a law committing China to a war of aggression against democratic Taiwan if it fails to satisfy Beijing's demands; and now, the crude use of nationalist sentiment to intimidate Japan. Far from ensuring stability, Mr. Hu's policy risks polarizing the region and forcing the United States and other outside powers to choose sides.
No one should wish for such an outcome, but if it comes to that, the choice shouldn't be hard. Japan's democratic government, like Taiwan's, poses no threat to its neighbors, and Tokyo has shown a growing willingness in recent years to contribute to regional and global security. Though its nationalists still try to play down Japan's criminal aggression in the 1930s and '40s, and some textbooks cater to them, the government has repeatedly apologized to its neighbors for the offenses that occurred 60 and 70 years ago. On Friday Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reiterated those apologies in an effort to defuse tensions with Beijing and pave the way for a meeting with Mr. Hu.
China has responded grudgingly to such conciliatory gestures, even though the crisis between the two countries -- the worst since they established diplomatic relations in 1972 -- is almost entirely of Beijing's making. It was Mr. Hu's government that chose to make an exaggerated fuss over the textbook issue, then allowed and even encouraged demonstrators to attack Japanese diplomatic missions and restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. The popular hostility toward Japan that erupted in the streets was real enough, but Mr. Hu's government made the dangerous and irresponsible decision to stoke it and employ it for its own ends. These ends include thwarting Japan's justifiable bid to become a member of the U.N. Security Council and using nationalism to prolong one-party rule by the Communist Party.
Concern that the demonstrations might get out of hand and turn against the government seems to have motivated Mr. Hu finally to rein them in: Official statements now warn against "unauthorized" protests. But there is no indication that the Chinese leadership has absorbed the larger lesson: that crude bullying of Hong Kong, Taiwan or Japan is not a path to greater influence, much less a "peaceful rise," by China. It is, rather, a formula for uniting most of Asia and eventually the United States in an attempt to contain Chinese belligerence. That would be a bad outcome for the United States, for China, and for Asian and global security. Whether it can be avoided depends mostly on whether Mr. Hu can recognize and learn from a string of mistakes.