Over the past two months, as China's maritime disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam have escalated, most foreign observers and American officials, though worried, have shown little concern that the conflicts would explode into a full-scale war. After all, for more than three decades China has profited enormously from being part of the global economic system. Its military, though growing, remains far less technologically advanced than American armed forces. And for 30 years, predictions that China one day would try to dominate its region by force have always been proven wrong.
Repeated warnings, with nothing coming of them, created a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario in Washington. In the early 1990s many human-rights activists, including some Democratic politicians, worried that China, ostracized after the Tiananmen crackdown, would lash out. China indeed fired missiles near Taiwan in 1995, but after the Clinton administration sent aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Strait, Beijing backed down. Instead it launched a charm offensive aimed at its neighbors, boosting aid, investment, and cultural diplomacy across the region. Western foreign policy leaders and China experts have come to assume that China has too much invested in the world today to smash it up. Beijing has "embraced global institutions and their rules and norms. … [That] has helped guide its spectacular economic growth and integration into the world economy," notes China specialist Wendy Dobson of the University of Toronto, in a typical commentary about Beijing's role in the world.
But this time the wolf might actually be here. China's highly nationalistic new leadership may no longer simply accede to the existing international economic and security order; instead it appears to want to change that order, even if that means harming some of China's most important trade ties.