China looks across Asia and sees new threats to its expanding influence

By Chris Buckley, Reuters

BEIJING — Heads of government attending Asian summits hoping to fathom China’s foreign policy mood swings might spare a thought for Beijing’s own leaders, who fear their expanding influence is attracting a new circle of potential foes not fans. China’s diplomacy throughout 2011 has stressed the ruling Communist Party’s desire to set aside recent regional feuds as it focuses on a leadership handover next year. Beijing has sought to rein in tensions with Vietnam as well as the Philippines over the South China Sea and avoided ire over Japan’s recent arrest of a Chinese boat captain in Japanese waters. And, crucially, Beijing and Washington have worked to contain rows over China’s currency, trade, security, North Korea and Taiwan. President Hu Jintao’s meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama and other leaders at the APEC summit in Hawaii on the weekend should reinforce that steadying message, as will Premier Wen Jiabao’s talks in Bali at the East Asia Summit on Nov. 19, which Obama is also due to attend.

But summit smiles only go so far. None of China’s festering territorial disputes are near resolution. Its growing economic and military reach continues to stir worry in many parts of Asia. And despite vows of mutual goodwill, Beijing remains wary of U.S. intentions and alliances, including Obama’s push for a new regional free trade pact. “China feels put upon — that even as it brings trade and prosperity, its regional security environment is less secure,” said Sun Xuefeng, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “There’s a sense of bafflement about how to respond.” Fears of Encirclement That sense of insecurity — and the resulting debate — comes across in the statements and positions of Chinese officials, state-run newspapers and think tanks. One theme is that the United States is bent on “encircling” China, an idea reflected in recent commentaries in state-run newspapers suggesting that U.S. pressure was behind Myanmar’s decision to suspend work on a controversial Chinese-funded dam. China has seen the former Burma as a bulwark on it southwest border, and a conduit for trade and energy imports. “(China) fears that some countries are pulling in major powers from the outside to counter-balance China, or that some neighbors are teaming up against China,” a team of researchers from a Chinese state think tank said in a recent study of Beijing’s regional dilemmas.