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Public opinion surveys in South Korea and Japan have registered levels of worry about China’s military not seen in years.

Farther afield, Beijing unleashed a flood of invective and froze some contacts with Norway after the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision there to award its Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo.

Then, just before Christmas, China parried with the Vatican over the right to appoint bishops, ending an unspoken arrangement that had largely kept the peace between the sides for the past five years.

Can China turn things around in 2011 and blunt impressions that the government is throwing its weight around?

Officials continue, at least, to pay lip service to the promised “peaceful rise” — a slogan meant to allay concerns that China would follow the familiar rising powers that come into conflict with the established powers. China’s leadership also has judged that avoiding friction with other countries is the best way to keep the economy humming.

“Peaceful development is the only right path. The more developed China is, the more it needs to strengthen cooperation with the rest of the world and the more it needs a peaceful and stable international environment,” China’s top diplomat, state counselor Dai Bingguo, wrote in a year-end commentary.

As it tries to make good on that promise, look for more efforts from Beijing to boost “soft power,” including perhaps continuing the expansion of its state media’s overseas presence and pouring more resources into Confucius Institutes to teach Chinese language and culture. A milder tone in the state-controlled media would also be an indication that Beijing wants to smooth things over.

China also is expected to increase its participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions and Gulf of Aden anti-piracy patrols as a way to ease worries over rising Chinese military capabilities.

Yet the pressure of a domestic audience that seeks a harder line may be hard to resist.

Officers in the People’s Liberation Army have grown more outspoken in their criticism of the West and Japan, sentiments that dovetail with rising nationalism. China’s weathering of the global financial crisis also has boosted the government’s willingness to demand a greater voice in international institutions. China eclipsed Japan this year as the world’s second-biggest economy after three decades of blistering growth that put overtaking the United States within reach.

The restiveness of minority areas in Tibet and Xinjiang and a looming leadership transition also push leaders toward hard-line positions.

And for decades to come, the Chinese will continue to cast their country’s rise as a struggle for pre-eminence with Washington.

“The U.S. will never allow China to challenge its leadership and will try to ‘contain’ China’s rise,” analysts Zheng Jie and Zhong Feiteng wrote in a regional security report for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released this week.