Not long ago, China was the darling of its
less powerful Asian neighbors with its growing economic importance and a policy
of non-interference in external affairs that contrasted with bellicose U.S.
foreign policy after 9/11.
However, a series of clashes over territorial disputes and Beijing's tendency to economically punish those who get in its way have encouraged many Asian nations to reassess their choices -- an increasingly aggressive Chinese dragon or a more distant and relatively benign America.
"U.S. stock in the region is going up," said Robert A. Manning, a former State Department planner and now senior fellow at The Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. The Chinese "have managed to foster real concerns about their intentions across the region, from India to Vietnam."
The reasons behind the Chinese push aren't known due to its closed system. It might be the need to find resources to fuel growth. Or Beijing may be flexing its military might amid the "Pacific pivot" by America that Beijing sees as a direct threat. It may even reflect internal Chinese battles over market reforms.
But a recent series of incidents has raised individual and collective concerns from India on one side to Japan and the Philippines on the other.
The People's Liberation Army recently occupied land that India claims is 12 miles inside its border, part of dispute over tens of thousands of square miles of rugged frontier turf that has been unresolved since the two nations fought a brief war in 1962.
Most of the other territorial disputes are at sea, where nations are vying for control of exclusive economic zones, or EEZs, with governing rights to mineral reserves and fish stocks.
The disputes center on the ownership of thousands of uninhabited islands in the South and East China seas. The islands are small, but the EEZs that surround them -- and the value of the resources that could be recovered within them -- are vast and lucrative.
None of the islands in dispute is very close to China, and many are well inside what would appear to be other nations' EEZs, but that hasn't stopped the Chinese from aggressively pursuing claims.
In the Senkakus (called Diaoyu by China), PLA Navy frigates have locked fire-control radar onto Japanese ships and aircraft. The islands, controlled by the U.S. for a period after World War II, have been administered by Japan for more than a century, but sovereignty is disputed by China and Taiwan. There also have been close approaches to Japanese territory by suspected Chinese submarines.
Natural gas is likely the most valuable resource in the area of the Senkakus, but fisheries, oil and other minerals are also at stake, according to Jean-Marc F. Blanchard, a professor at Jiaotong University's School of International and Public Affairs in Shanghai.
Estimates of the amount of natural gas haven't been validated because the conflict between China and Japan limits exploration, he said.
"It would be seen as highly provocative for Japan to develop the area," he said.
China, on the other hand, has started extracting oil and gas from nearby waters that are not in dispute, although the Japanese have complained that the fuels may be getting siphoned from its own territory.
In waters claimed by Vietnam, China's National Offshore Oil Corp. is seeking
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