The middle of 2013 brought the possibility of a reset in U.S.-China relations, as new Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke of his desire for a “new kind of great power relations” as he enjoyed relaxed, heart-to-heart talks with U.S. President Barack Obama at a California resort. The year ended, however, with further evidence that strategic friction between Beijing and Washington is serious and long-term. The Chinese declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, a new demand that foreigners get China’s permission before fishing in the South China Sea, and the incident involving the U.S. Navy cruiser Cowpens and a Chinese naval vessel reinforced the suspicion that despite explicit denials, Beijing intends to impose a sphere of influence over the seas off the Chinese coast.
That intention is not surprising; it is typical behavior for a great power, and China sees itself as a rising great power in a region where the long-dominant power, the United States, is declining. Furthermore, China is a returning great power that for centuries dominated or attempted to dominate its periphery. This sets expectations and provides a familiar pattern for modern-day Chinese, who view the Sinocentric tributary system of the past as a confirmation that China’s destiny is to lead the region in the future.
Neither, however, is China’s apparent intention a cause for celebration for most of the region. Most Chinese have a sanitized view of China’s historical leadership in the region: that China exercised influence through cultural, scientific and economic prowess rather than through coercion or expansionism. Neighboring states – like Vietnam, forcibly occupied for a thousand years by the Chinese – often have a different, darker view of historical Chinese pre-eminence.