China is the rising power in Asia. If power is a zero-sum game, then for China's power to increase, someone else's power has to decrease. Many in the US elite are concerned about China's rise, because they want to slow the US decline.
In addition, many in the US elite who want to maintain current levels of military spending are looking for a new adversary after the Cold War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to justify military spending. China's rise has the potential of providing a new framework around which to organize US military mobilization.
But these are not the only factors. The US didn't invent the tension between China and Vietnam, which is longstanding. Nor did the US invent the concerns in Japan about threats from China. Certainly the US is trying to take advantage of the tensions between China and other countries in the region to improve its own position.
The US is not the root cause of these tensions, and if China doesn't take the interests of others in the region into account, it risks playing into the hands of those in the US who are trying to build an anti-China alliance to constrain China's rise.
For example, a new government came into power in Japan, which was interested in changing its relationship to the US and to China. The new government wanted to remove the US military base at Futenma in Okinawa, become more independent of US policy, and to improve Japanese relations with China.
In order to thwart these developments, forces in Japan and the US who wanted to maintain the status quo played up the threat to Japan from China. By making what were perceived to be aggressive moves towards Japan, China played into the hands of these forces, and helped undermine those in Japan who wanted a better relationship with China and more independence from the US.
I think this is the key question for China going forward. If China's diplomatic stance in the region gets "tougher," it risks pushing other countries in the region more tightly into the US embrace, thereby undermining China's interests. China would be better off with a more flexible policy, which could take advantage of opportunities to help countries in the region be more independent of the US, rather than pursuing policies that could make other countries in the region more dependent on the US.
The author is policy director of Just Foreign Policy, an independent and non-partisan membership organization dedicated to reforming US foreign policy.