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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

China Is Playing Bully in Dispute With Japan

China's promise of a "peaceful rise'' to great power status sounded reassuring when it was first articulated by President Hu Jintao. Hu's idea of "peaceful'' so far has included the blunt suppression of democracy in Hong Kong; outreach to rogue regimes like 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, Hu's policy risks polarizing the region and forcing outside powers to choose sides.

No one would wish for such an outcome, but if it comes to that, the choice would not 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 1940s, 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 Hu.

China has responded grudgingly to such conciliatory gestures, even though the crisis between the two countries is almost entirely of Beijing's making. It was 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 Hu's government made the irresponsible decision to stoke it and employ it for its own ends. These ends include thwarting Japan's 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 Hu finally to rein them in. 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. 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 Hu can learn from a string of mistakes.

This comment originally appeared as an editorial in the Washington Post.