In a year Washington had announced would see a “pivot” of its strategic priorities away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific region, things heated up in the waters surrounding the continent’s budding hegemon, China. Beijing has grown more and more assertive in its territorial claims, both to its east in contests with Japan and in the South China Sea, which the Chinese imagine as their sphere of influence. That body of water is the world’s greatest thoroughfare for international trade, and beneath its two prominent archipelagoes, contested by a host of regional governments, lies an untold wealth in natural gas deposits. These barren spits of land have become zones of frequent confrontation between Chinese fishing and surveillance vessels and ships from Vietnam and the Philippines. Beijing and Manila were locked in a tense standoff over the Scarborough Shoal—recognized by most governments as being under Manila’s sovereignty—that led to China blocking banana imports from the Philippines. In the East China Sea, the Chinese locked horns with Japan over its control over the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu by the Chinese). The confrontation triggered nationalist demonstrations in China and a boycott of Japanese goods. At a time when much of the neighborhood watches uneasily as a rising China expands its ability to project naval power, Beijing’s willingness to succumb to the siren call of a muscular nationalism does little to calm regional anxieties.
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