Chinese diplomacy generally comes in all sizes and shapes, but until relatively recently the size was small and the shape a question mark.

Decades of international isolation did little to nudge many nuances into its foreign policy. Under Mao Zedong especially, China didn’t so much as conduct secret diplomacy under the table as it simply would duck issues while hiding under the table.

It was nearly pathologically involvement-adverse. You could almost imagine that for the longest time the Chinese-language character for foreign policy was the same as the one for foreign contagion — as in, don’t get involved and you won’t become ill.

It would make for a much easier, simpler column to suggest that this is now all ancient Chinese history. After all, the country with somewhere between a fourth and a fifth of the world’s people could hardly stay near-invisible. Its mushrooming economic interests have pushed its investors and its people (and thus its diplomats) unto the four corners of the Earth.

In recent times, the Chinese have played a more constructive role on the United Nations Security Council. You would almost never hear a peep from its chief representative unless it was to slap down a veto. This is changing: Recently promoted to the top job in China’s Washington embassy, Zhang Yesui, for the last several years their dynamic U.N. ambassador, almost personified the livelier Beijing line. This was good to see. So was Beijing’s 2003 plunge into the black nightmare of Korean Peninsula diplomacy when it put together the six-party talks, against all diplomatic tradition.

But the putative new rose of Chinese diplomacy has not yet fully boomed. The issue of China’s diplomatic capabilities continues to haunt China and put it on the defensive. The Obama administration, for example, continues to hope that Beijing will take a more aggressive attitude toward the Iranian nuclear question. But Beijing still says: no, no, a thousand times no.

China’s top people are now spread out well enough across the globe to know what others are saying behind their backs. It is that China is becoming a giant country while adhering to a midget diplomacy. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi no doubt was responding to such back-alley bad-mouthing when he delivered a remarkable speech recently in Beijing.

The venue was center stage at the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC). This is China’s top legislature. The U.S. parallel would be something like a Special Session of Congress — if America were run by a tight-fisted one-party system. It’s thus a very big deal (which, of course, gets scant U.S. media coverage, so the American public has no idea of what’s going on — but it’s only China, right?).

The foreign minister sought to portray China as less developed than outsiders might think and as more or less feeling its diplomatic way while clambering out of decades of self-imposed international insulation. “There are those who really want China to play a bigger role and those who overestimate China’s strength, exaggerate and play up China’s capacity to influence world affairs,” he told NPC delegates. China, he suggested, is at best a reluctant diplomatic dragon.

Later he expanded on that perspective: “We don’t do things that go beyond our strength and current level of development.”

Cop-out? Or honest self-assessment?

The answer is a measure of both. The problem for the rest of the world is that certain global issues are utterly unsolvable unless the New China joins in the hard work and leaves the Old China buried somewhere near Mao’s tomb. The obvious example is climate change. But it is the less obvious example that is even more urgent. That’s the state of the economies of both China and the United States.

They’re shaky. NPC delegates know this well. The key to China’s continued rise is more jobs. Fewer of them will trigger political instability. What that might bring to the Chinese mainland you don’t want to think about — nor do they.

On the American side, the country faces congressional elections this fall. The majority party in Congress is Democratic; so is the Executive. The key issue is producing new jobs and preserving existing ones. So far America is experiencing a joyless recovery. In six months, that could translate into many congressional incumbents losing their own jobs. That might resolve into an even fiercer U.S. policy gridlock, when time is of the essence.

What is hard to swallow is the failure of Beijing and Washington to fully accept that they are basically in the same rocky boat. And right now Sino-U.S. relations are not exactly at an all-time happy-hour level. There’s too much shouting about Taiwan arms sales (basically irrelevant to the cross-strait balance of power), too much dancing over the Dalai Lama.

Tellingly, a recent page-one headline in China Daily, the official English-language newspaper, used this apt analogy to depict the bilateral relationship: “A car with two drivers.” The result, the newspaper suggested, is the current bumpy, if not reckless, drive.

What’s needed now is not a car with two drivers but a van or SUV sufficiently large so as to be energy-saving enough to allow the two great powers to pool their perspectives, plot out a safe and efficient trip and arrive at a common destination. Anything less and the car with two drivers may be heading off a cliff.

American journalist Tom Plate has been writing his syndicated column on Asia for 16 years. © 2010 Pacific Perspectives Media Center.

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