In flexing muscles, China would rather be feared than liked

And it no longer seems to be so bothered by what the world thinks

Ten years ago, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics showcased a fast-growing, economically powerful China with unmistakable ambitions to be a major global player.

Just a few days ago, the Chinese authorities demolished the studio of artist Ai Weiwei, designer of the iconic "bird's nest" stadium and now an exiled dissident in Germany.

It was the latest sign of how the world's most populous country has evolved under President Xi Jinping - simultaneously more self-confident yet paranoid, and no longer nearly so bothered what the rest of the world thinks.

While once China's leaders flirted with copying the West, they now see themselves on a different route - even if that brings real risks of confrontation.

In Johannesburg at the Brics summit of leaders of the world's largest emerging economies last month, Mr Xi outlined his robust worldview that China offered a different vision than Western capitalist democracy.

In the South China Sea and beyond, Beijing's military has become ever more assertive. At the same time, its Belt and Road Initiative has both boosted Beijing's international clout but also hit some trouble.

In countries like Colombia and Malaysia, among others, local politicians and governments have pushed back against major Chinese projects, sometimes cancelling them altogether amid complaints over corruption and Beijing's heavy handedness.

Beijing is also seen by some as being increasingly on the defence in its dealings with US President Donald Trump, failing to gain the initiative in what looks to be an increasingly damaging trade confrontation.

According to reports, Beijing's attempts to understand the Trump administration and stay ahead in the tariff battle have been stymied by the reluctance of its own foreign policy experts and think tanks to provide honest advice for fear of antagonising powerful figures.

In addition, Chinese government advisers and academics now face travel restrictions, with Beijing typically only allowing them to leave the country for a few days at a time, further complicating their efforts to understand the world beyond China.

If anything, though, domestic problems and international criticism only seem to intensify China's conviction - and enthusiasm - for pushing ahead with its plans to reshape the world.

And its heavy-handed approach is yielding mixed results. In sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and a host of other emerging markets, Beijing's raw economic power - coupled with its willingness to work with often corrupt governments - continues to buy it access.Elsewhere, however, the pushback is growing.

Last month, Malaysia suspended US$22 billion (S$30 billion) of Chinese investment, mainly in infrastructure, following a major corruption scandal.

Nicaragua this year saw significant protests against a Chinese canal project. China's Communist Party rulers may not be particularly concerned by that.

In the last decade, they have clearly decided they would rather be feared than liked.

That's a strategy other countries will have to adapt to, but those in charge in Beijing may find it closes at least as many doors to them as it opens.


The writer is Reuters global affairs columnist. This commentary has been edited for length