U.S. ENGAGEMENT with Communist China began four decades ago as President Richard M. Nixon's effort to counterbalance what was then a greater threat from the Soviet Union. Since that time, the Soviet Union has disappeared, and the U.S.-China relationship has grown from secret shuttle diplomacy to nearly $400 billion a year in trade accompanied by expansive academic, cultural and even military contacts. Through it all, U.S. policy has rested on a roughly consistent hypothesis: The more the United States deals with China on normal terms -- promoting its prosperity and encouraging it to participate in international institutions, such as the World Trade Organization -- the more likely China is to evolve into a force for peace and stability.
And thus far China's amazing rise has been relatively peaceful. So much so that many in Asia, even such traditional rivals as Japan and Korea, began to think of China as a potential alternative to the purportedly declining United States as regional guarantor. Another popular conceit was that the United States and China might form a "G-2" partnership to manage global affairs.
But in recent weeks, China's behavior has reminded the world that it remains an authoritarian state with national and territorial grievances -- and its own ideas about the political and military uses to which its economic might should be put. Ominously, the flash point is relations with Japan, which waged war on China for 15 years in the 20th century but more recently has figured as China's largest foreign investor. Bluntly demanding that Japan release a Chinese fishing boat captain who had collided with Japanese patrol boats in waters both countries claim, Beijing turned a minor dispute into a geopolitical shoving match, complete with officially tolerated nationalist demonstrations in major Chinese cities. Worse, commodities traders reported that China threatened to deny Japanese industry crucial "rare earth" minerals until it got its way. China denied this, but the very notion is sobering at a time when China is engaged in a global effort to lock up raw materials.
Japan announced Friday that it would let the captain go; now China demands an apology besides. Meanwhile, it also continues to question U.S. efforts to impose sanctions against Iran -- and pushes to build a nuclear reactor in Pakistan, a possible violation of international nonproliferation law. And, of course, it shows no sign of permitting its undervalued currency to rise substantially, despite overtures from President Obama, including directly to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao last week, and from an increasing number of its trading partners whose economies also suffer from China's stance.
The picture painted by this behavior is not that of a moderate power eager to fit into a regulated international system. Rather, China's recent conduct looks more like 19th-century mercantilism. The recent clash with Japan was probably an opportunistic test of the new Japanese leadership and of the strength of the U.S.-Japan security alliance. Fortunately, the Obama administration, after some initial mixed signals, voiced support for the alliance. Japan, South Korea and other U.S. allies in the region have appeared to rediscover the wisdom of U.S. ties in light of China's behavior. Washington must stand by them firmly.