Symbolic gestures come in all shapes and sizes,but few as imposing as that of the USS George Washington,a ship more than three football-pitches long,and capable of carrying 85 aircraft and more than 6,200 people. But even symbols of such massive heft can be interpreted in various ways. The George Washington has just been in the South China Sea,off the coast of Danang,once home to one of the American armys biggest bases in Vietnam. Fifteen years after the opening of diplomatic relations,and 35 years since the end of the Vietnam war,the carriers visit,and the joint naval exercises that followed,were striking tokens of reconciliation. But observers in China saw a different sort of gesture: not so much a handshake with a former enemy; more a brandished fist towards a potential one,their own country.
Vituperative Chinese commentators detected an old bogey: an American attempt to contain China by bolstering alliances with its neighbours. Chinas leaders were more restrained (or perhaps just slower off the mark). But the South China Morning Post reported that Hu Jintao,the president,was in enough of a huff about this and other slights to contemplate delaying a visit to America. Just when the ice that formed after the Sino-American climate-change tiff in Copenhagen in December seemed to have melted,a new chill has set in. Sweet-mouthed American politicians,lamented Global Times,an English-language Chinese newspaper,stab you in the back when you are not looking.
Chinese analysts can point to an impressive array of American provocations to justify their fulminations. They cited reports that America is in talks on nuclear co-operation with Vietnam,and that,in an apparent reversal for its non-proliferation efforts,the Obama administration is not insisting that Vietnam forswear enriching its own uranium. As with Americas 2008 nuclear deal with India,China scented double standards.
China also faced an unsettling experience in July,at the annual ASEAN Regional Forum organised by the Association of South-East Asian Nations. This usually soporific security talking-shop,held this year in Hanoi,saw Hillary Clinton,Americas secretary of state,declare the South China Sea a national interest. When 12 of the 27 countries there spoke up for a new approach to solving their maritime disputes,China sniffed co-ordination nay,conspiracy especially when Vietnam swiftly stepped up its protests about Chinese activities in disputed waters.
Before her jaunt to Vietnam,the George Washington had been taking part in joint exercises with South Korean forces. Respecting Chinese sensitivities,she did not exercise in the Yellow Sea,just off Chinas coast. But a Pentagon spokesman has said she will do so in the near future. This comes as Americas ties with South Korea have been strengthened and Chinas frayed by the destruction of a naval vessel,the Cheonan,in March. South Korea and America,backed by an international inquiry,have blamed the sinking on a North Korean torpedo. The North has denied responsibility and China has refused to finger its awkward ally.
As the American navy has roamed Chinas neighbourhood,senior officials have fanned out over Asia. In Indonesia Robert Gates,the defence secretary,upset human-rights activists and delighted the government by resuming links to Kopassus,the armys special forces. William Burns,undersecretary of state for political affairs,has been to four South-East Asian countries.
It all amounts to what Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment,a Washington think-tank,has called the most comprehensive burst of diplomatic and military activity in Asia,particularly South-East Asia,in decades from an American administration. It is not surprising that many in China see all this as part of a new containment doctrine. Many in America do,too. By this analysis,Barack Obama took office committed to good relations with China,and ready to welcome it as a great power in return for Chinas accepting the global responsibilities that go with that status. Then a series of setbacks convinced him to stand up to China with a more muscular strategy. The sweet mouths spout charm just the same; but containment is now the game.
That is far from how the administration presents it,however. It argues it is merely reasserting a national interest and traditional role in East Asia,a region neglected by an America distracted by terrorism and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Absent without leave,America helped foster an overblown perception in the region of Americas decline and Chinas ascent. It is now putting that right. In Mr Paals phrase,Americas recent Asian diplomacy is not aimed at China,but has implications for China.
A container has several sides That may be too nuanced a distinction for the Global Times leader-writers. But those implications are indeed worth pondering. China seems to have digested one already: that the swagger,bordering on arrogance,with which Chinese officials were throwing their weight around in the region and in the West in the depths of the financial crisis created unnecessary alarm. These days,courtesy is back in vogue.
Another implication is that rather than simply rail against America,China could do more to prevent its neighbours providing such fertile ground for the seeds of distrust it sows. That would demand greater clarity over Chinas real strategic aims,and a willingness to discuss them in multilateral forums. On the South China Sea,for example,it is hard to know exactly what its claim is based on. Yet its ships sometimes treat the sea as a Chinese lake; its maps show a great lolling tongue of Chinese sovereignty stuck insolently out at the South-East Asian littoral states. No wonder those countries welcome American aircraft-carriers. The trouble is,of course,that if China were clearer about its aims,they might welcome them even more.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2010