"China tests the water constantly, and when they don't get what they want they tend to back down," says Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "As they develop their military capacities, they have to be very careful not to use them in ways that scare the neighbors."
The Chinese government's need to explain itself stems partly from the system's chronic secrecy: Outsiders do not even know when the ruling Standing Committee of the Communist Party's Politburo meets, let alone how its nine members reach decisions or what those decisions are.
At the same time, some observers suggest, there is not always a coherent answer to the question of why China does what it does. The Chinese government is not a monolithic force; pressure groups and cliques from the military to provincial governments have their own interests and can sometimes push aspects of foreign policy their way.
"They don't have a clear and well-defined road map of how to achieve their goals long term other than to pursue development as they have done," says Michael Swaine, a China watcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Nor, frankly, do foreign affairs seem to figure very high on Chinese leaders' agendas. "International questions are an afterthought," says Francois Godement, founder of the Asia Centre, a Paris-based think tank. Instead, for a Communist Party whose overriding priority is to stay in power, domestic problems threatening social stability at home are infinitely more important.
"We have to change our unsustainable development model into a sustainable one" less dependent on high pollution, low-value exports, argues Mr. Wu, the foreign-ministry adviser, "and we have to narrow the disparity between rich and poor."
"China will be preoccupied for a long time with its domestic agenda," agrees Professor Zhu. "If you want to handle complex relationships, the starting point is to get yourself in the best possible shape. It's like Kung Fu Panda says – you need inner peace."