In 2010, then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a gathering of Asian countries that the United States “has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” 

To China, those were fighting words. But surprisingly, no country came to its defense. Instead, 12 of China’s neighbors issued statements in support of Clinton’s position. Incensed, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi declared “China is a big country, and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”

According to the Financial Times‘s Geoff Dyer: “In less than half an hour, Yang managed to tear up more than a decade of subtle, diligent, and highly effective Chinese diplomacy.”

It’s just one example among many of a simple fact: China has few acquaintances and fewer friends. The country’s isolation is evident again in advance of this week’s U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. As The Washington Post reported:

China’s military rise, and its increasingly assertive claims to sovereignty of these largely uninhabited lumps of rock, coral and sand, have set it on a possible collision course with its neighbors, who also claim various of the archipelagos, and with the United States, which has important alliances with three of the rival claimants and would be obliged to defend them in case of an attack.

In “Still Ours to Lead,” Brookings scholar Bruce Jones notes that the United States “has more than fifty allies — over a quarter of the world’s states.” China’s “strategic allies,” however, “are few and far between.” What accounts for that gap?

1. History: China’s Cold War experience of maneuvering between the United States and Soviet Union shaped its current aversion to alliance formation. It committed to pursuing an “independent and self-reliant foreign policy of peace” in 1982 and, according to Feng Zhang, a scholar at the Australian National University, “has consistently rejected alliance as a foreign-policy principle, denigrating it as a relic of the Cold War unpalatable to Chinese morals.”

Especially in light of the Obama administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, China has come to see America’s network of alliances in the region as an instrument for constricting its rise.

2. Ideology: While it believes its values are exceptional, China is not interested in posing a Soviet-style challenge to democracy, capitalism and democratic capitalism. Still, the country remains a one-party, authoritarian country that treats political dissidents and ethnic minorities poorly. As long as those realities remain true, it will find it difficult, if not impossible, to forge alliances with democracies.

3. Big fish, small pond: China’s millennia-old history, imposing size (in terms of both population and territory), and challenging location (it has 14 neighbors) mean that some of its neighbors’ suspicion is inbuilt. But its behavior in recent years — enforcing a self-declared maritime border that encompasses some 80 percent of the South China Sea, applying incremental pressure and sometimes coercion to assert its sovereignty over disputed territories therein and adopting an increasingly elastic conception of its core interests — has further undermined its ability to achieve a “peaceful rise” within the Asia-Pacific.

4. China is primarily focused on internal development: While China’s behavior toward its neighbors has been increasingly assertive, its conduct beyond the Asia-Pacific is often transactional. The country is primarily interested in nurturing business relationships with other countries.

To that end, China has established economic partnerships across the world — extending loans and building infrastructure in exchange for vital commodities — paying little attention to the nature of the governments with which it is interacting. There is a significant gap, however, between business arrangements and durable alliances: The latter require at least some semblance of shared values and alignment of strategic imperatives.

5. China has risen — fast: The German Marshall Fund’s Daniel Kliman recently compared China’s rise over a 30-year period (1982 – 2012) with that of the United States (1870 – 1900), Germany (1870 – 1900), the Soviet Union (1945-75), and Japan (1960-90), considering shares of global economic growth, trade and military spending.  “In 30 years of ascent,” he concludes, China “has come farther, faster than any of the other rising powers in the comparison group.”

Any rise of such magnitude is bound to arouse anxiety, especially when it occurs in the putative successor to the world’s superpower.

While China has been advocating a new regional security architecture that would diminish the salience of America’s alliances in the Asia-Pacific, it does not appear to have reconsidered substantially its basic posture on alliance formation.

But as Yan Xuetong (author of an influential November 2011 New York Times article “How China Can Defeat America) and Huang Yuxing argue in “Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power,” “the limitations of the principle of nonalignment have already become apparent.”

China may not aspire to global preeminence. But if it aspires to strategic parity with the United States, it will have to become more proactive in forging alliances.