claiming they contained pests, Glaser said.
Subsequently, China began slowing inspections of papayas, mangoes, coconuts and pineapples from the Philippines. Chinese mainland travel agencies stopped sending tour groups to the Philippines, allegedly due to safety concerns, she said.
However, China is paying a price: Blanchard said the maritime disputes are helping the U.S. shore up its ties to other nations in Asia.
"Countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore and Australia have inclined more to the U.S. as a result of perceived Chinese aggressiveness," he said. "That is a cost to the Chinese."
China purchased goodwill in the 1990s in Southeast Asia, but those nations now worry they may be dominated, Blanchard said.
"These worries weren't present five to 10 years ago," he said.
Personnel in the U.S. Pacific Fleet have detected a sea change in attitude, Fannel said.
"In 2007, we weren't particularly popular in East Asia," he said. "We had trouble getting port calls for our ships or landing permission for our aircraft."
Beijing's conduct at sea has turned that around 180 degrees, he said.
"East Asia now remembers why they liked America," he said. "They definitely want us there and supporting them as they try to defend their rights."
More nations want U.S. ship visits than can be accommodated, he said.
"I have more invitations to meet with my counterparts in East Asia than our pre-continuous resolution-impacted travel budget can afford," he added.
Most of East Asia outside of China is enjoying the fruits of liberal democracy, Fannel said.
"Even autocratic Vietnam is prospering under this existing world order," he said. "They like it, and they don't want it encroached upon or taken away by a hegemonic China."
The change in attitude is impacting everything from military purchases to trade negotiations with the U.S., Blanchard said.
For example, Japanese politicians are more inclined to look at joining free trade talks despite opposition from agricultural and manufacturing interests. And there's more support for Japanese military spending, which could be vastly increased, Blanchard said.
In January, the Japanese cabinet voted to increase annual military spending for the first time in 11 years -- to $51.7 billion -- still less than 1 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.
Australia -- which will spend $24.2 billion (less than 1.6 percent of its GDP) on defense this year -- could also spend more on its military. Ironically, the Australian economy has boomed in recent years due to natural resource sales to China, Blanchard said.
The U.S. and India -- the world's two largest democracies -- participate in dozens of cooperative defense events each year. India, which is acquiring fleets of C-17 Globemaster transports and P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft, is a growing market for U.S. military hardware.
A reflection of politics?
So why would the Chinese seek confrontation when there are so many downsides?
"I'm not sure if it reflects a strategy as much as a dominant interest group flexing its will in their political system," Manning said.
Some in China may have believed that the global financial crisis that started in late 2007 signaled the decline of the U.S. and that the time was ripe to become more assertive, he said.
"They may have grossly miscalculated," Manning said. "Of all the major powers, the U.S. has the best prospects for an economic resurgence."
It also is possible that the administration of China's newly appointed president, Xi Jinping, might change course.
Blanchard said it's still unclear how secure and strong China's new leaders are, what their relationship is to the PLA or whether they will continue the confrontational policies of their predecessors.
Future Chinese aggression might be dictated by such factors as the need for the new leaders to appear strong or pressure from the PLA, he said, while noting that Chinese leaders can also be pragmatic.
"If they have costs imposed on them they might back off."
Manning agreed that Chinese leaders might seek to stoke the fires of nationalism to legitimize their power as their economy cools.
"China's investment driven, export-led growth model has run its course," he said.
China needs to make market-oriented reforms, but they are being blocked by special interest groups such as state-owned enterprises and the military, he said, but added:
"If I was China's leadership, I would want a peaceful external environment for all this to play out in."
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