A recent senior Chinese official visiting Washington bluffly told listeners not to pay attention to what’s said in China’s media, but to listen to the words of China’s leaders. Responsible American policy makers have tried to follow this advice for the past two years, but the gap between China’s rhetoric and its public opinion outlets has continued to grow. More disturbingly, China’s actions have come to correspond to nationalist and emotional public opinion in fact more often than the leaders’ calming words would suggest.

For a long time, more than twenty years, China’s leadership has followed the admonition of the late Deng Xiaoping to “hide one’s abilities, and bide one’s time (taoguang yanghui).” This has been generously interpreted as meaning that China should grow strong by sticking to the economic tasks at hand and not cause others to fear China’s rise. Another more sinister interpretation said it means China should not alarm its neighbors with its growing strength, but wait for the right moment to strike against them.

Recent Chinese behavior is strengthening the case for the latter interpretation. This is most apparent in China’s increasing assertiveness in the maritime regions close to its eastern and southern coasts, as well as in the cyber and space domains. As China’s military has developed new and unprecedented capabilities, in the first instance to intimidate Taiwan and its American protectors, it has been rewarded with a reduction of tensions from Taiwan and new opportunities to use its new power elsewhere in the region.

Meanwhile, many in China seem to think the United States has recently become dramatically weaker. The United States bogged itself down in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and then multiplied its weakness by triggering the worst recession since the Great Depression. It is therefore easy to understand why the Chinese people, schooled since 1949 on a literature of national humiliation (guo chi), might see this moment of weakness in the United States, and political and economic disarray in Japan, and perhaps elsewhere, as a time to begin to strike back against accumulated grievances.

One can impute a simple logic to recent Chinese behavior. The maritime regions near China are contested, with counterclaims surrounding un-inhabitable or virtually un-inhabitable bits of territory. China has historically not pressed its claims vigorously because it was weak, and the maritime nations of the region and the United States were too strong to be dislodged. But now the “correlation of forces,” to use the old Soviet phrase, is changing.

Is this just logic or theory, and not practical reality? We can look at history and show this has been a policy that has emerged with a certain consistency through dramatic swings in regimes in China. China took the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea from Saigon in 1974, just after the United States and North Vietnam concluded the Paris Peace Talks to prepare the way for an American exit from Indochina. This was during the heyday in China of the Gang of Four leftists, but also the last days of pragmatic leader Zhou Enlai.

China seized several islands from Hanoi, its erstwhile ally, in 1988, after Mikhail Gorbachev had pronounced in Vladivostok that the USSR was downgrading its role in the region (as a condition for improving relations with China, on terms dictated to a declining Russia by Deng Xiaoping). The Soviet navy sailed out of Cam Ranh Bay and past the islands as China seized them.

Finally, in 1994, China took possession of Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, shortly after the U.S.-Philippine Basing Agreement expired, causing the U.S. navy to depart Subic Bay, where it had been stationed since 1898. This was under the leadership of Western-friendly Jiang Zemin.

So, should it be surprising today, that despite today’s leaders’ reassurances of benign intent, forces are being allowed in China to fulfill long-standing dreams? The pattern of the past suggests we should not be surprised, even though, as before, China generally seeks to benefit from the existing international system while adjusting its terms at the margins. The real issues are the wisdom of this course of action and the response it will engender, not whether it is occurring. 

In the 1930-1940s, Japan, under different circumstances, overestimated its strength and underestimated America’s, with tragic consequences. Lessons should be learned from that episode, on all sides. Today China may be at the initial stage of making a similar mistaken estimation. The lesson of history suggests China should consider early, or be reminded firmly, that it may be moving in an unwise direction.

But will the United States and allied response to China’s current small steps be adequate to meet this challenge, deflect it, or if necessary defeat it? It might be all too easy under current circumstances for China to calculate that the response will not. The United States is only just beginning to extricate itself from Iraq and has not begun withdrawal from Afghanistan, which will delay redeployments of resources to East Asia. 

Following previous domestic economic and political crises, the United States has bounced back, but only after six, eight, or even ten years of election cycles and political regeneration. (Think of the post-Depression years and the post-Vietnam malaise.) China could be tempted to rush to a judgment that the U.S. days of preeminence are over, since America is only two years into this crisis. If the United States requires the traditional interval to regenerate itself, that may give China further time to mistakenly estimate the correlation of forces.

Meanwhile, Washington faces a China increasingly integrated into the most important issues facing the world, yet for now seemingly bent on small gains in sensitive places, like the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea. Perhaps Beijing calculates that these small losses will not be worth the risk to a weakened America of conflict with China and a loss of needed cooperation from China on the big global issues. They could be “inching” forward, as in the South China Sea examples of the 1970s-1990s.

The Obama administration did the right thing in speaking out indirectly against China’s recent unilateralism in the South China Sea, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a return to a multilateral approach in Hanoi in April. China responded heatedly, but carefully. 

The new Japanese government, however, produced conflicting messages in handling friction between its coast guard and Chinese fishing boats in disputed waters around the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) islets in September. While China’s aggressive response sent alarms through Japan and Asia, it also taught Beijing that pressurizing Japan produces results. And the Japan-U.S. alliance still faces many challenges to its credibility, including declining Japanese defense budgets. Taken together, these outcomes may have undercut the benefits of Clinton’s push back on the South China Sea.

And with the postponement of a carrier battle group exercise in the Yellow Sea this week, China may again wrongly conclude the United States is shying away from a fight. The postponement was for technical reasons, but media accounts have reinforced the notion that the United States is afraid to give China offense.

This could get dangerous. Big issues are beginning to take shape in small doses, and early responses are crucial to achieving peaceful outcomes or deterring worse ones. The Obama administration will do well judiciously to select further opportunities to remind China that it is neither as weak as Beijing thinks nor as unwilling to give offense as it supposes.

At the same time, China has the option to pull its conduct back into line with its rhetoric. President Hu Jintao is expected to make a state visit to Washington in January, and this has already led to a resumption of grudging meetings between the Chinese and American militaries. The Chinese authorities are steering the renminbi to a higher valuation in response to pressure from the administration, Federal Reserve, and Congress. More arrangements can be made to steer a productive course, such as exchanges of visits by vice presidents and defense ministers next year.

China’s military leaders lately are speaking in less obnoxious terms to the media than before, including a more careful statement on China’s claims in the South China Sea by LGen. Ma Xiaotian, whose record suggests a hard line approach. Diplomats can yet show willingness to return to a multilateral approach to disputes in the area.

And China can resume making positive references and demonstrating adherence to “hiding one’s ability and biding one’s time,” instead of treating it as a phrase too politically incorrect to utter in a time of rising triumphalism. With a proper course adjustment in China’s behavior, observers might resume a less sinister interpretation of the meaning of the phrase. That would permit the heated atmosphere of rising nationalism to enter a needed cooling off period.