How to protect ‘core interests’
The United States has recently, and repeatedly, made clear that its new defense policy is to put greater emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region, with a view to playing a leadership role in Asia, to China's evident discomfiture.
President Barack Obama personally proposed a "leaner" U.S. military strategy, with almost half a trillion dollars in spending cuts over the next 10 years, while calling for a larger U.S. military presence in Asia.
The new policy was embodied in a "Defense Strategic Guidance" issued by the Pentagon.
This said, in part, that "over the long term, China's emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the U.S. economy and our security in a variety of ways."
This caused Beijing to bristle. Its defense ministry spokesman declared that allegations that China's rise may affect the economy and security of the U.S. were "groundless" and "untrustworthy."
Aside from China, the new U.S. defense policy was well received in Asia, which by and large welcomed the reaffirmation of America's commitment to the region.
In fact, Washington is currently negotiating with the Philippines, which has territorial disputes with China, about enhancing defense cooperation. Manila is reportedly studying a U.S. offer to deploy surveillance aircraft to enhance its ability to defend disputed areas in the South China Sea.
The U.S. and Vietnam have also apparently agreed to closer defense ties. An American congressional declaration has called for a stronger U.S.-Vietnam partnership.
Singapore, too, welcomes a U.S. military presence in the region and has constructed a naval base designed to receive American aircraft carriers. The U.S. and Singapore held their first strategic partnership dialogue in January.
Although China is clearly unhappy with the new U.S. defense strategy, it has refrained from making loud denunciations.
Instead, one senior Chinese diplomat said that while friction between the two countries was inevitable, "cooperation is the main goal, and the two countries' competition will help to maintain peace and stability, which is the desire of all countries in the region."
One reason for China's relatively muted stance is its desire to ensure that the visit of Vice President Xi Jinping to the U.S. in February will be successful.
The vice president is expected to become head of the ruling Chinese Communist Party later this year and to assume the additional post of head of state early in 2013, succeeding President Hu Jintao.
The Washington trip, in a sense, will be Xi's "coming out." It will provide an opportunity for Americans to take his measure and for the new Chinese leader to network with American political and business leaders.
Xi, who took part recently in marking the 40th anniversary of the visit to China of then President Richard Nixon in 1972, used the occasion to reiterate China's desire for good relations with the U.S.
He urged both countries to respect each other's core interests and to properly handle their differences.
"To promote the healthy and stable development of Sino-U.S. relations is not only the shared responsibility of the two countries," he said, "but also the common expectation of the international community."
Beijing must realize that its assertive ― even aggressive ― foreign policy in the last couple of years has created an environment in which
East Asian countries welcome a U.S. military presence to balance
China's increasing military might.
Moreover, countries in the region are also knitting closer security ties among themselves as a hedge against China. Notable developments include India's cooperation with Vietnam in the exploration for energy resources in disputed seas as well as Japan's decision for closer security ties with Russia, with which it has unresolved territorial disputes.
In fact, there is a distinct possibility of forming an anti-China coalition which could include all of East Asia's other major powers.
In an attempt to prevent its isolation, Beijing has embarked upon a campaign to improve relations with its neighbors.
Thus, a senior Foreign Ministry official said that Beijing is ready to seize the opportunity of the marking of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Japan in 1972 to further promote relations with Tokyo.
Similarly, another Chinese diplomat declared that China intends to promote its strategic and cooperative partnership with India this year.
Beijing should be aware that the U.S. and China's neighbors respect its new-found status as a global power. However, in this interconnected world, each country, regardless of its size and power, is to some extent dependent on the goodwill of other countries.
So, in its attempt to realize and protect its "core interests," China will have to tread carefully lest it trample upon what other countries consider to be their "core interests."
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. E-mail the writer at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.