By DANIEL SNEIDER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
The nationalist fervor evident in the anti-Japanese demonstrations surging through Chinese cities last week is genuine. But it is also being carefully orchestrated by the communist government in Beijing to assert China's claim to leadership in Asia.
Behind this standoff lies a more subtle challenge to the United States, the power many Chinese believe stands behind Japan.
"The Japanese right-wingers seem to believe that as long as Japan is allied to the United States, the world's only superpower, they really have nothing to fear," retired Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) Maj. Gen. Pan Zhenquiang, a security expert, wrote this week. "On the other hand, Washington seems to welcome Japan turning to the right and clamoring to play a great role in international affairs."
For some in Beijing, Japanese assertiveness is only a piece of a broader American effort to encircle China. They point to the language used by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a key policy address during her recent tour of Asia, delivered at Tokyo's Sophia University.
"The U.S.-Japan relationship, the U.S.-South Korean relationship, the U.S.-Indian relationship, all are important in creating an environment in which China is more likely to play a positive role than a negative one," Rice said. Anticipating the response, she hastened to add that "these alliances are not against China."
Despite such reassurance, Chinese strategic thinkers "believe that we still regard China as a threat to be contained and countered, not as a partner in Asia," a former United States government official with long experience in Asia told me.
"The ability of the Chinese to see the worst motives out of that kind of statement is long standing," responded a senior administration official. "It is a convenient argument, particularly for people in the PLA, that Americans are out to make their lives more difficult," he said.
Imagined or not, the Chinese are determined to break the links in the chain being built around them. The attempt to put Japan on the defensive was coupled last week with an unusual attempt to woo India.
"India, China are brothers," visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jibao said at the close of his visit there. "We want to elevate the strategic relationship."
China offered not only deals to end long-standing border disputes but a partnership with India's powerful high technology industry. Wen journeyed to Bangalore where he spoke of a marriage of India's software prowess with China's hardware skills to launch the "Asian century" of information technology.
China's fear of encirclement may also shape its handling of North Korea's bid to become a nuclear power. The U.S. and China have been partners on this, with China hosting six-party talks over the last two years to find a diplomatic solution.
The talks have been suspended since last summer. Senior North Korean officials told visiting American expert Selig Harrison last week that they intend to soon begin unloading another batch of spent fuel from their reactor, to be reprocessed into weapons usable plutonium. They will go ahead unless Washington agrees to talk directly to them, something the administration refuses to do.
Fears of instability
The North Korean threat in China's eyes is different than for Washington. The U.S. worries about North Korean nukes leaking out to terrorist foes. China fears instability and even war on its borders.
North Korea is an irritating client state for Beijing. But they have no desire to trade it for an American-dominated Korean peninsula. So Beijing will not back what Washington clearly wants -- to overthrow the Pyongyang regime by cutting it off economically. And practically speaking only China, whose trade with its communist neighbor is booming of late, can impose that solution.
Administration officials privately admit that is true. They still hold out hope that Beijing will drag the North Koreans to another round of talks. "The Chinese will buy them off in one form or another," the senior official said.
Even if talks take place, however, they are unlikely to go anywhere. Then Washington and Beijing may have a public parting on the issue that has been a hallmark of their shaky partnership. If that happens, the clouds settling in over Northeast Asia will only darken.
X Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.