The US and China are engaged in a dance of global partnership in which the two tightly embrace or wriggle warily in tandem at a distance, depending on the background music. At the same time, where there is overlap in the perceived spheres of influence, the music stops and the two countries argue over who calls the tune.
When the history of the early part of the 21st century is written, one of the great heroes of the People's Republic of China might turn out to be an anonymous map-maker from the late 1940s whose work is helping to drive increasingly dangerous confrontations today between China and its neighbors across the South China Sea.
To put the Middle Kingdom's soft power in context, while China is building bullet trains to connect 80 percent of its cities, half of all Indians still lack toilets. China's newly aggressive posture in the East and South China Seas, not to mention its commercial cyberspying, threaten to undermine that soft power. This is not to say that China is singularly at fault or that some of its claims are not legitimate and that others, especially Japan, are not culpable in raising tensions. Everyone now also knows that American NSA cyberspying is globally pervasive. But it is to say that much of the rest of the world perceives a new confrontational tone in Beijing.
The Asia-Pacific region has achieved tremendous growth in the span of a single generation. Regrettably, a large and relatively disproportionate share of the fruits of that growth is going toward military expansion. The sources of instability include not only the threat of weapons of mass destruction, but also -- and more immediately -- efforts to alter the territorial status quo through force or coercion. And those efforts are taking place largely at sea. We do not welcome dangerous encounters by fighter aircraft and vessels at sea. What Japan and China must exchange are words. Should we not meet at the negotiating table, exchange smiles and handshakes, and get down to talking?
Today, Asia once again faces a historical challenge. It is standing at the crossroads between progress and retrogression. Why and how have we come this far? Partly, this is accounted for by the new and divergent outlook for the regional order -- a rising China, a resurgent Japan, strong Russia, anachronistic North Korea obsessed with the pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the United States who is rebalancing to Asia. It looks like the "Pandora's Box" is being opened, with all sorts of problems -- both old and new -- popping up, complicating the already very complex situation. Any of these developments, if mishandled or left unchecked, could escalate into a much more serious situation with far reaching consequences for the region.
Both Washington and China are steadily upping the stakes in their rivalry as China's provocations of U.S. friends and allies become more flagrant and America's commitments to support them become more categorical. Both believe they can do this with impunity because both believe the other will back down to avoid a clash. There is a disconcertingly high chance that they are both wrong. Asia today therefore carries the seeds of a truly catastrophic episode of mutual misperception.