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China's goal at Washington summit: Image repair

President Hu Jintao visits next month. Analysts say he needs to undo foreign-policy damage.

BEIJING - Now for the damage control.

After taking a pounding in the court of world opinion in recent months, the Chinese government hopes to repair an image tarnished by the public relations fiasco of the Nobel Peace Prize and a series of foreign-policy gaffes.

Chinese President Hu Jintao is to be received by President Obama on Jan. 19, with an official state dinner and Oval Office meeting scheduled, the White House announced Thursday. China has toned down its blatant public support for North Korea, urging Pyongyang to accept nuclear inspections and to refrain from further threats to South Korea.

"At the end of the day, Hu needs a successful summit," said Michael Green, a top Asia adviser to President George W. Bush and now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He added, however, that "it might be tactical, rather than a forthright recognition that China needs to compromise."

For a leadership that sailed through the global financial crisis with nary a misstep, the Chinese have proved surprisingly inept at diplomacy. Beijing's assertive - critics say thuggish - behavior in the international arena has undermined an image it had long cultivated as a gentle giant whose prosperity would only enrich its neighbors.

Tenuous ties

Carefully nurtured relations with the United States, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and many European countries have seemed in danger of unraveling with alarming speed.

"We need to do some repair work," said Shen Dingli, an international-relations specialist at Shanghai's Fudan University. "China has to be humble and courteous about appreciating America's help in its development and should not use rising power to make friends upset."

Among the many sore points are Beijing's manipulation of its currency to give its exports an edge over those of its trading partners, and its seemingly unconditional support of North Korea, particularly after the Nov. 23 shelling of a South Korean island in which four people died.

Favorable views of China among South Koreans have sunk from 66 percent in 2002 to 38 percent, according to a poll by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center. A few days after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, 92 percent of South Koreans surveyed said they were upset with China's response.

"China's behavior is stirring tremendous antipathy toward China and leading to the creation of an anti-Chinese bloc made up of the United States and allies, which was exactly what Chinese foreign policy for years was designed to prevent," said Susan Shirk, a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego. "It has been so ham-handed and counterproductive that it suggests a disjointed policy process rather than any coherent strategy by the standing committee of the Politburo," she said.

Weak leadership cited

Shirk said China's recent belligerence is a result of a weak top leadership that has left decision-making in the hands of the state security and propaganda apparatus as well as the People's Liberation Army.

Among recent examples: Beijing's aggressive reaction to a collision in September between a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese coast guard vessel is prompting an overhaul of Japan's defense policy, with guidelines being released this month that shift resources to the East China Sea. In Japan, 90 percent of the people queried in October described relations with China as poor, up from 45 percent in 2009, according to polls published by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.

Chinese behavior in the South China Sea has reversed the alliances of the Vietnam War, with Hanoi now edging toward the United States as it seeks protection. Vietnam is investing in submarines and long-range combat aircraft because of dozens of incidents in the last year in which Chinese vessels have harassed its fishing and oil ships. China's territorial claim to a million square miles of the sea has also unnerved Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, pushing them closer to the United States.

The tilt toward a hawkish policy appears exacerbated by jockeying for power before the 18th national congress of the Communist Party in 2012, when the presidency, the premiership, and many Politburo posts will change hands, Shirk said.

The public tantrum over the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo, who helped write a manifesto challenging Communist Party rule, showed the government at its most counterproductive.

"It was one of their worst performances in international statecraft in recent memory," said Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an international investment banker who has advised the Chinese government.

By keeping Liu's wife and friends under house arrest, China invited unfortunate comparisons to Nazi Germany in 1936, when pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, imprisoned by that government, was unable to send a representative to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize. The comparisons infuriate Chinese officials.

The Foreign Ministry embarrassed itself with unsubstantiated claims that 100 countries and international groups were boycotting the award ceremony. In fact, 19 countries, including China, informed the Nobel Committee they would not attend, among them Russia, Cuba, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Iran - which have rights issues of their own.

There are some signs of a reckoning in Beijing. It recently has let a few dissidents who were under house arrest return to their daily routines, though it also stopped allowing visitors for Liu. And China last month quietly resumed shipments to Japan of rare-earth metals, a key high-tech component.

Chinese officials also resumed talks with the U.S. military that had been suspended for most of the year because of a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, eliciting positive comments from Pentagon officials.