I have just returned from Beijing and found that many Chinese believe that China should be less deferential to the US because they think the United States is in decline. As I show in detail in my new book, The Future of Power, this Chinese view is mistaken and China is unlikely to equal American economic, military or soft power for decades to come.
Nonetheless, overconfidence has led to more assertive Chinese foreign policy behavior in the last two years that alienated the Obama administration. China stage-managed Obama's trip to Beijing in November 2009 in a heavy handed way; it over-reacted to Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama, and the administration's long expected and relatively modest arms sales to Taiwan. Last week, the Chinese military chose to test its new stealth fighter just as Defense Secretary Gates was calling on President Hu Jintao.
China's new assertiveness has also affected its relations with other countries. Its policies in the South China Sea created fear among the ASEAN nations; and its over-reaction after a ship collision near the Senkaku Islands put an end to the Democratic Party of Japan's hopes for a closer relationship with China.
Beijing alienated South Korea by failing to criticize North Korea's shelling of a South Korean island; irritated India over border and passport issues; and embarrassed itself in Europe and elsewhere by over-reacting to the Nobel Peace Prize granted to the jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo.
This is the backdrop for this week's Washington summit. President Hu Jintao's stated desire to cooperate on terrorism, non-proliferation, and clean energy could help to lead to a reduction of tensions, but powerful domestic interest groups in the export industries and in the People's Liberation Army will limit economic or naval cooperation.
And most important, given the nationalism that one sees in the blogosphere in China, it will be difficult for Chinese top leaders to change their policies too dramatically. Since both countries have more to gain from cooperation than conflict, we must hope that Hu's state visit goes well.