Now that China has become a global economic power, it's beginning to throw its weight around Asia as a military power as well. That's making China's neighbors — and the United States — nervous. And for good reason. • China and its neighbors disagree over who owns hundreds of islands in East Asia's seas — and, more important, vast offshore areas around those islands that could yield oil, gas or minerals.
In the South China Sea, parts of whose waters are claimed by many nations, a Chinese-built submersible set a record last summer by diving more than 2 miles to survey the seabed and to plant a Chinese flag there. China is building a naval base on Hainan island, and Chinese patrol boats have seized Vietnamese fishing boats for fishing in disputed waters.
In the East China Sea, China and Japan have clashed over the uninhabited, Japanese-held Senkaku islands (China calls them the Diaoyu islands) and over each country's naval movements through the Miyako Strait.
The whole situation has Washington alarmed. The Chinese say they're acting to regain sovereignty over islands and waters that they contend were once theirs, stolen by foreign powers when their country was weak. (Their neighbors dispute those claims.) China wants the United States to butt out.
During a just-completed 10-day trip to China and the Pacific, I heard Chinese officials and scholars denounce the U.S. military presence in Asia with rhetoric that seemed resurrected from the Cold War.
And, in the middle of what increasingly sounds like Cold War-era saber-rattling — or, worse, the military rivalries of the late 19th century — smaller countries in East Asia are trying to figure out what it means for their future.
Some, like Vietnam and Singapore, have asked the United States to keep a big military force in Asia to counterbalance Chinese power.
Some China-watchers suggest that Beijing's new aggressiveness in the region is evidence that the Chinese military, which tends to be hawkish, has gained new influence over foreign policy.
For now, China seems to be simply testing its neighbors — and the United States — to see what it can get away with at a time when the Obama administration has its hands full in Afghanistan. But that may turn out to be a counterproductive foreign policy. Because of China's truculence, U.S. relations with Japan, Korea and Vietnam have almost never been better.
There are signs that China is softening its stance, at least for the moment. Over the long run, though, China's new assertiveness is likely to continue. The underlying causes — growing economic power, a gnawing need for oil and mineral resources, a history of well-founded grudges against foreign imperialists, a normal dose of old-fashioned nationalism — are still there.
And when the Chinese look at us (as they do) and see a diminishing economic power and a government that's going broke, they wonder how long we're going to pay for a big, expensive fleet patrolling off their coast.
The last time a new economic power rose in Asia and acquired great-power military clout, it was the 19th century and the new power was Japan. That story turned out badly — for Japan, China and everyone else.
Managing the impact of China's rise to great-power status — and with it, the loss of our own near-monopoly over military power in the Pacific — is one of the great challenges of U.S. statecraft in our time. How the process turns out could determine whether East Asia's 21st century is marked by peace or war.
© 2010 Los Angeles Times