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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rising Chinese Giant Rattles Region

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- In ways large and small, subtle and heavy-handed, with the thud of a missile crashing to the sea and the imperceptible click of two ceramic teacups toasting another business deal, China is making itself felt across Asia with a weight not seen since the 18th century.

Over the last three weeks, China has massed troops along its southern coast and conducted missile tests and live-ammunition military exercises in the 150-mile-wide strait separating it from Taiwan, a raw display of power that frayed nerves around the region. The Clinton administration, calling Beijing's maneuvers "reckless,'' has responded by dispatching two aircraft carrier groups to the area, one of the largest American forces assembled in the Pacific since the Vietnam War.

Taiwan and the United States see the saber rattling as part of a Chinese campaign to intimidate the island and its 21 million people as they prepare for their first democratic presidential election next Saturday. For the countries of East Asia, however, the military posturing confirms a larger shift in the geopolitics of a region stretching from Japan and South Korea in the north to the Southeast Asian belt bracketed by Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and the island nations of Indonesia and the Philippines.

Since the end of the Cold War, China's explosive economic growth, the decline of senior leader Deng Xiaoping and the embrace of nationalism by Deng's insecure successors have moved Beijing actively to seek a place as Asia's principal economic, political and military player. The result has been profound changes in the way other East Asian countries understand their security, their economic and political interests, and their relationships with the United States.

For decades, the common cliche has been that China is the region's sleeping dragon, a giant too self-absorbed with its own internal turmoil to make its great weight felt. Now that the dragon has stirred, it is altering issues from regional trade patterns to manufacturing, from the decisions Asian governments make about upgrading their military hardware to the ways in which television programs and music videos are produced and packaged.

The effect of China's growing profile in the region is still being played out. But it raises two central and related sets of questions. First, how should Asia view this rising giant? Should China's belligerence toward Taiwan inspire fear? Or should the lure of the vast Chinese market and its potential as an economic engine for the next century inspire confidence? "It's both. There's ambivalence,'' said Jusuf Wanandi, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia. "On the economic side, China is a big opportunity -- a competitor, of course, but an opportunity. It's a much tougher question on the political-security side.''

"We cannot say that there is no chance they will be a serious military power after 10 years,'' said Hisahiko Okazaki, the former Japanese ambassador to Thailand.

And that brings up the second, related set of questions: How to deal with this stirring power? Should the policy be one of engagement or containment? The answers vary, depending on the differing views of China's intentions in the region.

Wanandi sees much of China's current assertiveness -- over Taiwan and in disputes with other Asian countries over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea -- as motivated not by expansionist desires but by fear. China has a long and tortured history of invasion by outside powers. And Beijing's belligerence may be exacerbated by the parlous state of its leadership: Deng, 91, has not appeared in public for more than two years, and the stability and true policy plans of his successors, led by President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng, are doubtful.

"They're paranoid,'' Wanandi said. "They're assertive on the one side and very vulnerable on the other. We have to reassure them and tame them as well. We have to let them know what the rules of the game are.''

Asians are understandably viewing with alarm the tense drama being played out in the strait, though they are reluctant to criticize China directly.

Perhaps the strongest criticism came from Hong Kong's British governor, Chris Patten, who warned in diplomatic language that China's military intimidation of Taiwan was likely to affect sentiments in Hong Kong as it prepares to revert to Chinese control next year.

No country is watching more intently than Japan, which could find itself drawn into conflict with one of its largest trading partners if the United States uses bases in Japan to counter Chinese moves against Taiwan. Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said China's military escalation was taking "an unfortunate direction,'' and called for peaceful dialogue.

Asian nations have viewed China's emergence with envy, awe and a defensive preparedness. Most Southeast Asian nations have embarked on huge military modernization programs. Malaysia has bought Hawk mobile surface-to-air missile systems and two frigates from Britain, as well as American F/A-18 and Russian MiG-29 warplanes. Singapore has bought American F-16s. Thailand recently became the first country to buy an aircraft carrier, albeit a small one that will support only nine hand-me-down British Harrier jump jets.