WASHINGTON -- Just about any American who has had briefings in China over the last 20 years about that country's new mandarin communist intentions toward the world has left the inner sanctums of the most mysterious kingdom in recent history with a feeling of satisfaction.
The Chinese were standoffish, of course. That is the way even the softest communist has to be. But more and more, their vast land has been opened to the eyes of others, more and more they offer you money at a good rate, and more and more we, perhaps foolishly, believe we can trust them.
The main story they want us to believe -- besides the lie that they never, ever steal technology from American companies -- is that they are a non-expansionist power. For 300 years of their modern history, the men of the state tell you seriously, they have never gone outside of China's historical boundaries to occupy others' lands. They would not have the capacity to do it, even if they so willed. No, instead, they are reverting in part to their native Confucianism, in which there is a place in society for everyone, a place which one disregards or disrespects at one's own cost.
The 300-year story happens to be true, but it was always dependent upon the fact that China was so penned in between its own Great Wall and the ever-constant threat of attacks from outside, that China had little chance to wriggle about in Asia.
What the wily Chinese monarchy did in recent years was to constantly push-push-push out along its borders. In neighboring Burma to the southwest, when I was there 10 year ago, everything north of Mandalay was run by the Chinese, and Chinese was spoken. Beijing was filling its always restive and angry autonomous Xingiang province with Han Chinese, who are simply taking over an oil- and mineral-rich province with a Chinese majority population, which now owns it.
Tibet was taken outright -- there is always an outlier to the general truth -- and Taiwan is gradually being bought out by Beijing bringing wealthy Taiwanese to live and do business on the mainland. How long before there will be no Taiwan? To the north, the Russians are constantly complaining of Chinese nationals crossing their largely open borders -- and staying.
But now the Chinese are being much more daring. They are declaring that some remote islands, which look like several volcanoes having emerged from the South China Sea, are theirs, and that they are not going to let the Japanese, who also historically claim them, take them over. Called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China, the islands are legally claimed by Japan.
But only in the last two weeks, China has created an "East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone" that covers the islands and which China has promised to defend. After China drove its ships through these seas, the U.S., which is committed to defending Japan, did some dramatic overflying of B52s to show its disdain for the Chinese claims.
None of this exactly shadows the intermittent good feelings that have attended U.S./China relations recently, but what does it does mean in the world of China's ruling Communist Party? For when one looks for the meaning of this dramatic and shadowy diplomacy, one finds little except the desire to be seen as an active world power. There may be oil or even some other minerals on the islands, but it's hard to argue that is enough reason for all of this Sturm und Drang. And it may be equally possible that there is nothing at all worth anything on those poor rocks.
Meanwhile, China is buying up agricultural land all over the globe -- in places such as Sudan, West Africa and Brazil. It is also becoming the new international banker. Its most recent dramatic offer has been to loan money to Ukraine, which is deeply in debt and which might well use China to get out of its smothering relationship with Russia, the latter attempting to re-create some parts of the Soviet Empire.
In short, while the United States is now getting deeply involved even further in the Middle East -- Iraq and Afghanistan were not far enough, apparently; we need to hold sway over even farther-away Iran, where we have no culture or history in common at all -- our real attention should be directed to the Far East.
In the Orient and the Pacific, despite the differences in culture, we have a long history of intervention -- during World War II, in opening Japan during the 19th century, and now with economic ties to China.
What we do not have yet is an "architecture" of relationships with friendly Asian countries. There is no NATO, no G-20, no regularly meeting organization with the Asians -- and there should be.
The lack of clarity in the mind of the Middle Kingdom becomes even more bewildering to many since, despite China's immediate wealth, as the wise columnist Martin Wolf wrote recently in the Financial Times:
"Military experts assume that, in a head-on conflict, China would lose. While its economy has grown dramatically, it is still smaller than that of the U.S., let alone of the U.S. and Japan together. Above all, the U.S. still controls the seas. If open conflict arrived, the U.S. could cut off the world's trade with China. It would also sequester a good part of China's liquid foreign assets.
"The economic consequences would be devastating for the world, but they would, almost certainly, be worse for China than for the U.S. and its allies."
Still, the slow-but-sure buildup that we see in the papers every day -- with South Korea building new bases and China strengthening its navy and air force, and with Japan planning to build a new army base by 2016 on one of the small, inhabited islands near Senkaku or Diaoya -- cannot be ignored.
That is why Vice President Joe Biden was in Asia this week, hoping to force some clarity on the parts of the increasingly nervous and aggressive neighbors. Both Japan and China have just approved the creation of National Security Councils like the American one in the White House, which advises the president on security issues.
Even more bewildering is that when Chinese President Xi Jinping came to Washington recently, it was reported that his and President Obama's meetings went well and that there was agreement on the free passage in the South Pacific. Does China want to push the U.S. out in the Pacific to the further groups of islands, such as the Philippines? Or is America's "pivot" to Asia going to come sooner than expected? Or ...?