In the tranquil harbors that dot the coastline of Palawan, a sword-shaped island in the western Philippines, the ferry boats are crowded with commuters traveling back and forth between sleepy townships, and with vendors bearing fresh produce. On Sundays, they fill with people dressed up for church. From nearby berths, fishermen set out to sea for days at a time aboard their bancas, the simple, low-slung catamarans they have favored for generations.

Just inland from the shore, narrow, crowded streets thrum with the put-put of motorized rickshaws. The signs on the small shops and restaurants that line them are almost as likely to be in Korean, Vietnamese, or Chinese as in the Filipino language Tagalog.

The shore-hugging seas of this part of the world, from the southern tip of the Korean peninsula to the Indonesian archipelago, have always served as a kind of open freeway for culture, trade, and ceaseless migration. In past times, historians of the region went so far as to call the long waterway that encompasses both the East China Sea and the South China Sea the Mediterranean of East Asia. But more recently, it has begun to earn more-ominous comparisons to another part of Europe, a fragmented region that was the famous trigger for the First World War: the Balkans.

A mere 25 miles off the shore of Palawan sits the frontier of an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable struggle. Its origin lies in China’s intensifying efforts to remake the maritime borders of this region, just as surely as Russia is remaking Europe’s political map in places like Crimea and Ukraine—only here the scale is vastly larger, the players more numerous, and the complexity greater.

Moving with ever greater boldness, Beijing has begun pressing claims to ownership of more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, waters enclosed by what it calls its “nine-dash line,” a relic of the country’s early-20th-century nationalist era, when it was first sketched to indicate China’s view of its traditional prerogatives. The line has no international standing and had gone largely unremarked upon until China recently revived it. It now figures in all Chinese maps. Since 2012, it has been embossed in new passports issued to the country’s citizens.

Also known as the cow’s tongue, for the way it dangles from China’s southern coast, the line encloses a region through which roughly 40 percent of the world’s trade and a great majority of China’s imported oil passes, via the Strait of Malacca, as through the eye of a needle. An observation from the 16th century—“Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice”—still conveys the region’s maritime importance.

Residents of outposts like Palawan, which sits along the eastern edge of the nine-dash line, already feel besieged. Fishermen who enter waters that their forebears freely traversed for generations nowadays find themselves at risk in a disputed no-man’s-land. “The locals are afraid to go out to the west because there are a lot of Chinese boats—military vessels,” said Edwin Seracarpio, a 52-year-old boat owner whom I found one bright morning waiting port-side for the return of one of his crews. “The Chinese say it has always been their property.”

If China can impose its will in the South China Sea, at least five rival claimants—all much smaller, weaker Asian states—will be limited to a narrow band of the sea along their coastlines. China would gain greater security for its crucial supply lines of oil and other commodities; exclusive access to rich fishing areas and potentially vast undersea oil deposits; a much larger buffer against what it regards as U.S. naval intrusions; and, not least, the prestige and standing it has long sought, becoming in effect the Pacific’s hegemon, and positioning itself to press its decades-old demand that Taiwan come under its control. Arguably, it would achieve the greatest territorial expansion by any power since imperial Japan’s annexation of large swaths of Asia in the first half of the 20th century.

Earlier this year, a flotilla of Chinese ships, reportedly including naval vessels, steamed into waters off Vietnam’s coast to deploy an oil-exploration rig, claiming rights to the area. Above, Chinese coast-guard vessels give chase to a Vietnamese boat that had come within 10 nautical miles of the rig. (Martin Petty/Reuters)

China’s expansion has long been expected. Many observers have said a new cold war, in which a rising China gradually seeks to push the U.S. military out of the western Pacific, is inevitable. Any such conflict would of course be dangerous whenever it happened, because the United States is likely to resist these efforts strenuously. But what’s surprising—and worrisome—is how the timeline for this conflict, or at least its beginning stage, has seemed to accelerate over roughly the past two years. Suddenly and aggressively, China has begun advancing its military interests throughout the region, catching its neighbors and the United States off guard.

Since mid-2013, China has seemed, at first glance, to almost indiscriminately pick fights all the way around its eastern perimeter. That July, a group of Chinese warships, setting out from a northern port, circumnavigated Japan for the first time. Beijing seemed to be sending two messages: that it was ready to stand up to its historical rival, and also that China would no longer be contained within what it calls the First Island Chain, the long series of islands that stretches down China’s coast, preventing easy naval access to the open Pacific.

Just before Thanksgiving last year, Beijing made a surprise announcement of an “air-defense identification zone,” claiming navigational control of the skies over most of the water that lies between China and Japan, including not only areas claimed by Japan but also areas claimed by South Korea, with which it has usually enjoyed smooth relations. The Pentagon, which sends surveillance aircraft through this zone regularly, immediately said it would ignore China’s assertion; however, the United States did advise commercial airlines to observe the new Chinese rules.

Just days after the air-defense zone was announced, China’s lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, a freshly refurbished ship purchased secondhand from Ukraine in 1998, embarked on its first voyage with a full naval strike group in tow. It was almost a textbook reenactment of the gunboat diplomacy practiced by Western nations a century ago. With an escort of two destroyers and two antisubmarine frigates, the Liaoning steamed directly for the hotly contested South China Sea. In early December, before it could even reach the disputed zone near the Philippines and Vietnam, one of the accompanying Chinese vessels engaged in a dangerous showdown with an American vessel, the Aegis cruiser Cowpens.

The American ship was tracking the Liaoning’s deployment, in international waters, when the Chinese ship abruptly turned into the Cowpens’ path and stopped in front of the ship, forcing the Cowpens to make a radical maneuver to avoid a collision. According to a state-run Chinese newspaper, the reason for the ship’s highly unusual failure to give way was that the Cowpens had violated the Chinese convoy’s “inner defense layer,” a hitherto unheard‑of exclusion zone apparently covering more than 2,800 square miles—equivalent to about half the size of Connecticut. After the incident, the U.S. Navy took pains to emphasize that the American avoidance maneuver should not be seen as a precedent. “The U.S. military, my forces in the Pacific AOR”—Area of Responsibility—“will operate freely in international waters,” said Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, the head of the Pacific Command. “That’s the bottom line. We will operate there … And that’s the message to all the militaries that are operating in that region.”

In January 2014, a different Chinese naval group patrolled the James Shoal, an area claimed by both Taiwan and Malaysia, where it held a highly publicized deck-top ceremony in which sailors trumpeted an “oath of determination” to safeguard China’s maritime interests.

In February, three Chinese warships patrolled the Indian Ocean, passing for the first time through the narrow Sunda Strait between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra, and eventually maneuvering, without advance notice, off the Australian territory of Christmas Island. China, Australia’s biggest trading partner, is displeased that this historical American ally agreed in 2011 to allow the United States to begin rotating as many as 2,500 marines through a training base in northern Australia, as part of the Obama administration’s announced “pivot” to Asia, a shift of American military assets to the Pacific, and a reflection of the region’s increasing centrality to the global economy.

Shen Dingli, a prominent Chinese security analyst, explained the patrol this way to a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald: “America has interfered in mainland China’s unification with Taiwan, and its region-based alliances have served its purpose of military intervention. Australia is on the U.S. strategic chessboard for such a purpose … Australia shall not expect to be entitled to follow the U.S. to threaten China without hurting itself.”

The ensuing months have all maintained a similar rhythm, with Chinese provocations, if anything, growing stronger. In early May, some 80 Chinese ships, reportedly including seven navy vessels, accompanied a $1 billion deep-sea oil-exploration rig as it was towed just 120 nautical miles off the main coast of Vietnam and readied for operation. China claimed that the rig was being deployed within its own territorial seas, even though Vietnam’s coast is closer—and even though the location is well within 200 nautical miles of Vietnam, a boundary line accorded to all coastal countries as an exclusive economic zone. Jousting ensued, including Chinese ships’ use of water cannons to ward off their rivals, and the ramming of ships on both sides. In the end, faced with vastly superior Chinese strength, Vietnam was essentially reduced to exasperated diplomatic protests. (In mid-July, China announced that the rig had completed its mission and would move to China’s Hainan Island.)

Throughout the year, China has also employed less militaristic but no less brazen tactics to assert control in the Pacific—most notably by building artificial islands in the contested waters off the Spratly Islands. On these new islands and on other remote outcroppings, China has constructed bases and dwellings to house Chinese soldiers. It seemingly hopes to use its presence on the islands to support and underscore its claims to the waters that surround them.

However willy-nilly these provocations may at first appear, the struggle that China has launched for dominance of the western Pacific is anything but indiscriminate. It is best understood, rather, as a densely scripted theatrical production in several acts. As long as China has its way, the early phases will likely be played out mostly in the South China Sea, where the country enjoys a huge and growing power disparity compared with much smaller states—Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia. But the struggle will eventually come to more squarely include Japan and its perimeter, if miscalculation does not bring that conflict to a boil sooner. Over the past year, I have traveled the region extensively, talking with key diplomats and military thinkers among China’s neighbors—the ones now scrambling to respond to China’s incursions—to get their sense of how things might play out, and how the United States might become involved, wittingly or unwittingly. What follows is their perception of the chessboard and likely play in the Pacific—and of where things might take a dangerous turn.

The South China Sea is home to many overlapping claims of maritime rights, as shown on the map above. Since 2009, China has asserted exclusive rights to more than 80 percent of the sea, enclosed by a line (in red) sometimes called the cow’s tongue. The line has no international standing.

Killing a Chicken to Scare the Monkeys

China’s main frontline opponents in the South China Sea are Vietnam and the Philippines. Analysts in both countries strongly fear that Beijing will seek to make an example of at least one of them, following the venerable Chinese adage that one kills a chicken to scare the monkeys. The question would seem to be which neighbor will serve as the sacrificial chicken; which country China will bully and humiliate as an object lesson to other neighbors that resistance is futile and decisive help from the Americans is unlikely to come.

Today, Vietnam is the only country in the region that seeks to impose serious limits on China’s maritime ambitions but does not have a defense agreement with the United States, making it an attractive target. On the other hand, even if it is scarcely more than one-30th of China’s size, Vietnam has a redoubtable martial culture, as the United States learned in the 1960s. The Chinese, too, should be familiar with the disposition toward resistance: Vietnam repelled a Chinese invasion of the country’s northern borderlands in 1979, leaving as many as 20,000 Chinese soldiers dead. Yet this incident has long since been censored out of China’s national consciousness. And just as they did at the beginning of that assiduously forgotten war, outlets of the Chinese state media have spoken recently of the need to give Vietnam “a lesson it deserves,” or to make it pay “an unaffordable price.”

Although the two countries are nominal ideological allies, their relationship through the centuries has involved many waves of invasion and subjugation, deeply coloring the attitudes of each toward the other. “Invasion is in their blood, and resistance is in our blood” is how a Vietnamese political analyst summed up the countries’ two millennia of bitterly shared history for The New York Times in May.

No one among the score of diplomats and officials I met in Vietnam has any illusion of prevailing in a symmetrical clash with China, naval or otherwise. But Vietnam has at times found unconventional means to overcome bigger and more heavily armed adversaries. This history of defying the odds has fired a mood of self-confidence in Hanoi that sometimes smacks of arrogance.

“We are a very small country, but every time China has wanted to use force against Vietnam, we have stopped them,” a prominent Vietnamese military analyst told me in Kuala Lumpur early this year. We met in a formal reception room in his country’s embassy, furnished with a springy couch, a noisy air conditioner, and fading revolutionary art. High on the wall, in pride of place, hung a portrait of a smiling Ho Chi Minh. “In the Malvinas conflict, Argentina fired only three Exocet missiles; one of them sunk a British ship,” he said. “If the Chinese come with Liaoning, we will defeat them.”

Hanoi recently took delivery of two silent Russian-built, Kilo-class submarines—four more are on the way—and the military analyst unambiguously explained such an expensive purchase for a country with a per capita GDP of only about $1,900: his country needs to be able to sink Chinese ships in order to raise the cost of Chinese aggression to unacceptable levels. “Little by little we are loosening the noose” that China has put around his country’s neck, he told me.

Vietnam has to weigh its response to Chinese provocation with great care, given the two countries’ increasing economic integration. In 2012, at a particularly tense moment with Manila, China suspended imports of bananas from the Philippines, causing huge quantities of the crop to rot on docks. And as soon as tensions rose once the oil rig had been towed into Vietnamese waters, trade between the two countries declined sharply, with Chinese state media warning of possible long-term economic consequences.

To the Vietnamese, the oil-rig incident did not reach a threshold that warranted war. Multiple Vietnamese officials told me that a Chinese bid to seize disputed islands from Vietnam (as it did in 1974 and 1988) probably would. The oil rig’s deployment fomented gigantic protests in Vietnam, where large public demonstrations are rare. On the first day, May 11, hundreds of people turned out peacefully in Hanoi, carrying banners with slogans like “Protect the nation.” Over the next several days, large crowds converged on several industrial parks, attacking Chinese businesses. Vietnamese analysts said that the unrest, in which numerous protesters died, carried a sharp warning that the state’s legitimacy might crumble if it failed to strike back after any new Chinese island grab.

Many Western analysts view China’s approach in the Pacific as a sort of calibrated incrementalism, whereby a Chinese presence and de facto Chinese rights in disputed areas are built up gradually, in a series of provocations that are individually small enough to make forceful resistance politically difficult, but that collectively establish precedents and, over time, norms. The Chinese, in fact, have a name for this approach: the cabbage strategy. An area is slowly surrounded by individual “leaves”—a fishing boat here, a coast-guard vessel there—until it’s wrapped in layers, like a cabbage. (“Salami slicing” is another metaphor for the approach.)

Surely the Chinese would be satisfied if Vietnam simply accepted their slow expansion of maritime rights and territory. But the tempo and tenor of China’s recent actions suggest that Beijing might now also be happy with a contest of strength against Hanoi, especially if Vietnam were perceived as the country that struck first. This, ultimately, is how China’s positioning of its oil rig, backed by an armada, should be understood: it would help legitimize Chinese claims if Vietnam did nothing, and would offer an opportunity to loudly squash the bug in some limited battle—and perhaps to impose crippling economic sanctions—if Hanoi lashed out.

Indeed, given Beijing’s great advantage of force, some Vietnamese officials have recently warned that although military action by their side is emotionally attractive, and perhaps even inevitable, it may do nothing more than spring a Chinese trap. If the question of standing up to China becomes too tightly bound with regime survival, all that might be accomplished is public failure and, ironically, regime change in Vietnam.

To maintain a claim to the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, several Filipino soldiers live aboard the Sierra Madre, which is grounded there. Chinese ships regularly seek to block the vessel’s resupply. (Eric DeCastro/Reuters)

If China is looking to make an example of a smaller rival in the South China Sea—to show that the bully will most certainly get its way, that appeasement is better than resistance—the Philippines is the other likely target. Until very recently, the Philippines stood out for its weakness. Of the country’s once-large fleet of C‑130 transport planes, for instance, only two or three still function. For 20 years, the Philippines has badly neglected its military, which was never that strong to begin with.

Beijing has busily begun changing the status quo in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. On contested islands, it is building naval piers, landing strips, and even schools for the children of Chinese military personnel. In tandem, it has used surveillance ships and nominally private fishing boats to more or less permanently surround disputed shoals and shallows. The fishing boats are outfitted with GPS and radios, and their captains receive subsidies for their role as an early warning system to Beijing about the movements of other countries’ vessels. China responds to most incursions into the disputed seas with its increasingly sophisticated and muscular coast guard, to avoid the appearance of militarization. The Philippines, like most states in the region, cannot match the capability of these vessels without using navy ships, which would look to the outside world like conflict escalation. For good measure, Chinese naval vessels often hover in the background, there to send a message and to be available in an emergency.

Manila’s counterefforts to anchor its claims to the small islands and shoals off its coast have been equally clever, but ultimately reflect desperation. Most famously, in 1999, the country grounded a rusted-out ship long ago inherited from the United States, known as the Sierra Madre, just off the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys, 105 nautical miles west of Palawan. The sailors billeted aboard the disintegrating ship literally embody Manila’s case for sovereignty over the shoal. Their survival, however, depends on the outcome of an increasingly tenuous game of cat and mouse with the Chinese navy as it seeks to interdict their resupply.

In January, Gilberto G. B. Asuque, then the Philippines’ assistant secretary for ocean concerns, greeted me in a conference room filled with large nautical maps in the Philippines’ foreign ministry. “The Chinese keep telling us to remove our boat,” he said, referring to the Sierra Madre. When I asked him whether his country is poorly prepared for a potential showdown, he replied, “Isn’t that a little obvious?” Asuque went on to say that out of necessity, the Philippines has elected to play out its conflict with Beijing in the public arena whenever possible. If China resorts to force, he reasons, the international community will likely rally in support of the embattled underdog.

The country has embraced the same philosophy in pursuing a case against China under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. The United Nations has no power to force China to comply with any ruling, but as the weaker nation, the Philippines is counting on international opprobrium—basically shame—to force China to observe a convention it ratified in 1996. “We have everything to gain, and nothing to lose,” Harry Roque, a law professor at the University of the Philippines who helped persuade the government to pursue its case against China, told me.

At Oyster Bay, on Palawan’s west-central coast, the Filipino government recently broke ground on a new naval base, in the belated hopes of pushing back against its giant and determined neighbor. Just in the past year or so, Manila has hastily purchased two used frigates from Italy, a variety of attack helicopters and other aircraft, and a fleet of coast-guard patrol vessels. President Benigno Aquino III speaks often of the acquisitions, explaining them as a bid to ensure that his country has at least a minimal deterrent capability. There is no mistaking that he has China in mind.

Most important, in April, the Philippines signed a mutual-defense agreement with the United States, designed, it seems, to give Beijing pause. A month after the signing, in a speech at West Point, President Obama drove home the message behind the agreement. “Let me repeat a principle I put forward at the outset of my presidency: the United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it—when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger.”

One might think the agreement and Obama’s remarks would deter China, and that is unquestionably the consensus view in the United States—but from the Pacific, the deterrent value of the agreement looks less certain. In fact, a former Filipino national-security adviser told me that because gamesmanship—the goal being to cut the United States down to size in what China regards as its own backyard—seems to be one major impetus behind China’s new assertiveness, China might now view the Philippines as a more attractive target. Now that Manila has explicit American backing, finding a way to humiliate the Philippines would allow Beijing to prove a larger point. This thought was captured vividly in recent comments by Major General Zhu Chenghu, a professor at China’s National Defense University. Speaking with a Hong Kong–based TV station in June, he warned American allies in Asia that the United States had become a paper tiger. He likened Washington’s response to the Ukraine crisis to “erectile dysfunction.”

From China’s perspective, the perfect scenario might be for the inexperienced Filipino armed forces to venture the use of their newly acquired hardware, prompting a limited military encounter that would display Chinese superiority and enable China to make a new or stronger territorial claim to a few small atolls in the area—perhaps in hydrocarbon-rich waters. The United States might find it difficult to respond satisfactorily, given the stakes. To some elites in China, the opportunity to reveal the United States as an unreliable alliance partner across the Pacific is surely alluring.

If the risks of American humiliation in backing (or failing to back) a weak country like the Philippines are high, though, the risks for China are also considerable. China’s naval history since the 19th century reads like a litany of failures, first against European powers and then against a rising Japan, which decisively defeated its neighbor in 1895. Any failure to prevail over the Philippines would constitute an embarrassment that could potentially destabilize the Communist Party. And Washington might also call Beijing’s bluff, defending the Philippines if, for example, China tried to evict the Filipino soldiers from their rust-bucket outpost, the Sierra Madre. This might reveal China, instead, to be the paper tiger.

Filipino cadets practice amphibious landing. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

The High-Stakes Game

A few hundred miles to the north of the Philippines, China is in a showdown with Japan over a small and until recently obscure group of barren islands and rocks known in Japanese as the Senkakus, which were under Tokyo’s uncontested control from their annexation in 1895 until Japan’s defeat in World War II. Despite the seeming insignificance of the territory—no one lives there—this struggle has much higher stakes than the skirmishes to the south. It is here that the future of East Asia may well be determined. The region has never peacefully accommodated the coexistence of two major Asian powers, and as China pursues world-power status, Japan has made clear its intention to constrain it. The long Japanese archipelago keeps China bottled up in coastal waters. Control of the Senkaku Islands (and potentially of the Ryukyu Islands, which sit southeast of the Senkakus) is seen in Beijing as a key to gaining direct, unfettered access to the open ocean—and, significantly, as a stepping stone toward taking over Taiwan, a fundamental aim for decades.

China did not contest Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkakus, which it calls the Diaoyu Islands, until 1971, when the United States, relinquishing the last vestiges of its occupation of the Japanese archipelago, returned the islands to Tokyo’s jurisdiction. In what is unlikely to be a coincidence, just two years before China began making its claims, the United Nations published the results of a geophysical survey of the area, concluding that “the continental shelf between Taiwan and Japan may be one of the most prolific oil reservoirs in the world.”

In 1978, after several years of sporadic verbal jousting, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping told his Japanese counterpart that the two countries should defer the question of ownership of the islands to “a future generation.” Tensions resurfaced sharply in 2010, 13 years after Deng’s death, when a Chinese fishing trawler rammed a Japanese coast-guard vessel in nearby waters. Japan’s arrest of the captain unleashed nationalist passions in China.

China’s new behavior appears to reflect not only rising capability but rising insecurity.

Ever since, China has frequently sent coast-guard ships into the 12 nautical miles of territorial waters surrounding the Senkakus, in a blunt challenge to Japanese authority. From time to time, the militaries of the two countries directly engage each other. In December 2012, three months after the Japanese government nationalized some of the Senkakus (the land had previously been owned by a Japanese citizen), a Chinese reconnaissance aircraft entered the airspace above the islands, prompting Japan to scramble fighter jets from nearby Okinawa. A month later, in a move that naval experts said could easily have led to an exchange of live fire, a Chinese frigate locked its fire-control radar on the Japanese destroyer Yūdachi. This June, military aircraft of the two countries reportedly flew within as little as 100 feet of each other above the disputed waters, during perilous maneuvers for which each side blamed the other. When asked, in a poll conducted this summer, how the territorial dispute should be resolved, 64 percent of Chinese respondents said China should “strengthen its effective control” over the territory. More than half said they expected a military conflict with Japan at some point in the future, although only 11 percent expected it within the next few years.

In December 2012, Japan returned to power its most nationalistic prime minister in a generation, Shinzo Abe, who increased Japanese defense spending for the first time in years and promised to revise the constitution, which bans the use of force in disputes, in order to legally field a national army. Abe and many of his conservative associates have shown a penchant for inflaming Chinese passions by seeming to minimize Japanese atrocities during World War II, such as the sexual enslavement of Chinese women by the Japanese army. Abe has a powerful personal connection to this ugly history, from which he has never distanced himself: his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was a top civilian official in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Last December, he became the first serving Japanese prime minister in years to visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted Japanese war criminals are commemorated. Abe’s unapologetic relationship with this history has made top-level diplomacy with China impossible.

Abe has spoken openly about standing up to China. In one of his first big defense measures, he approved the creation of a force modeled after the U.S. Marines. Tokyo has even gotten into the budding regional aircraft-carrier race, by building and recently commissioning its own light carrier, the Izumo, which for now deploys only helicopters. Japan has also announced plans to increase its fleet of highly advanced submarines from 16 to 22 vessels. Eyebrows were raised in Washington last year when it was reported that Japan might shoot down any Chinese drones violating its airspace.

On a recent visit to Japan, I traveled to one of the places where the nation is expanding its military presence, Yonaguni, a tranquil jewel of an island with only two main roads, located at the southern end of the Ryukyu island chain. There, on high ground, under an old lighthouse where a local breed of stunted horses graze, one is just out of visual range of the Senkakus. “Most people here don’t want a base on this island,” a resident told me. “But for quick deployment, there is surely no better location.”

Japan’s rationale in establishing the outpost, as with most of its recent strengthening efforts, is that sooner or later China will try to take the Senkakus by force. Among other benefits, control of the islands would give China a platform for striking American ships setting out from bases in Okinawa, preventing them from approaching China or from intervening in a conflict over control of Taiwan, which sits close by.

Early this year, speaking at a conference in San Diego, the director of intelligence and information operations for the United States Pacific Fleet, Captain James Fanell, argued that Beijing was already preparing its forces “to be able to conduct a short, sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea, followed with what can only be expected, a seizure of the Senkakus or even the southern Ryukyus.” The Pentagon eventually distanced itself from Fanell’s comments, which some other regional experts have called alarmist. Whatever China’s true intentions, though, Fanell’s remarks conveyed a strong sense of American foreboding about the mounting tensions between Japan and China.

If hostilities broke out today, many analysts believe that Japan would prevail. In addition to their top-drawer American weapons systems, Japanese forces benefit from years of joint training alongside their American counterparts, and are probably more battle-ready than the navy of the People’s Liberation Army.

For that reason, among others, prominent Japanese analysts feel it is unlikely that China would be interested in a major frontal clash anytime soon. “They know that we would beat them,” one leading national-security thinker told me flatly. But he and other analysts generally believe that China will continue to provoke close calls and perhaps even small skirmishes with the Japanese military—harassing Japanese aircraft, ramming coast-guard vessels. The goal, they say, is subtle, and very much part of a long game. It involves public opinion, in Japan and in the United States.

As Japan and China conduct increasingly risky sorties and maneuvers in and above the rough seas between them, the likelihood of shots being fired rises, and with it the chance of casualties. Whichever side appears responsible for any clash will see its international image badly tarnished, and will face strong pressure to appease. If Tokyo is perceived as the aggressor, or even merely reckless, Japanese analysts fear an immense backlash, at home and abroad. Public opinion in Japan, with its deep currents of pacifism, could turn on Abe, or on a future government, as civilians panic at the thought of their leaders steering them into war with their giant neighbor.

Potentially even more damaging, in the eyes of Japanese analysts, would be the response of the American public. Since 1996, the Japanese foreign ministry has polled Americans directly about their support for U.S. defense commitments to Japan. Last year, two out of three respondents gave their support, but that was the lowest level of support since the poll began. When asked which country in Asia was “the most important partner of the United States,” more Americans said China than Japan. Particularly at a time of American war weariness, a violent skirmish between Japan and China over what appear from afar to be a jumble of meaningless rocks would provoke a profoundly unsettling question: Is the United States really prepared to fight China, and defend Japan, over an obscure territorial issue?

“Accidents will happen,” Narushige Michishita, the director of the security-and-international-studies program at Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, told me flatly, in Tokyo. “We have to formulate our policy on the assumption” that some bluffing contest will eventually go wrong, resulting in dead soldiers. “The focus has to be on minimizing the damage.” Many Japanese analysts are convinced that China is trying to goad Japan—through persistent, carefully calibrated provocations—into overreaction, and will continue to do so.

If the United States were to waver in its commitments to Tokyo, or to balk altogether, Beijing will have gone a long way toward achieving perhaps its biggest long-standing objective: undermining the alliance between America and Japan. Washington would lose credibility throughout the region, and nation after nation, possibly even including Japan, would begin making new calculations aimed at accommodating China.

Here again, though, the opportunities for miscalculation are abundant, and may well proliferate in the coming years. Should China first successfully face down one of its adversaries in the South China Sea, for instance—the Philippines, say—its military and political leaders might feel emboldened. And yet in that same scenario, the onus on Washington to strongly support Japan, lest it see its entire alliance structure in Asia crumble, would be exceptionally heavy. Washington would have multiple options in any clash between China and Japan, ranging from direct hostile engagement to intense support through real-time satellite and radar intelligence, logistical help, and even interception of Chinese missiles. Such a varied menu might allow the United States to calibrate its military response to any hostility and, in conjunction with skillful diplomacy, to smother the conflict while retaining its standing. History suggests that such technically demanding dances can also go badly wrong.

Vietnamese coast-guard crewmen plot coordinates. (Martin Petty/Reuters)

Tying Down the Giant

China’s pushiness has commanded the attention of states around its entire perimeter. Many have begun to form unlikely partnerships with the same interest in mind: restraining Beijing.

Referring to one of these new relationships, a Vietnamese diplomat in Southeast Asia told me drolly that India is “prepared to fight China to the last Vietnamese,” meaning it would bankroll Vietnam as a proxy in any conflict with the Chinese. Delhi has already agreed to train Vietnamese sailors in submarine warfare and has offered a $100 million line of credit to Hanoi to buy military equipment, including maritime patrol vessels. That’s not much by the standards of regional military spending, but it is likely only a first step.

This is also probably the most salient goal of the American pivot: thickening the web among China’s wary neighbors, who have a shared interest in keeping China from using force to upend the existing order. Japan excepted for the time being, none of these countries has any prospect of prevailing toe-to-toe with China, and some of them are frankly Lilliputian. In concert, however, even if not in outright alliance, they may be able to effectively tie down the giant and constrain it to a mutually acceptable set of international rules.

In any event, as the India-Vietnam example vividly illustrates, China’s neighbors are not exactly waiting for the United States to show them the way. Japan is contributing enthusiastically to a maritime defense buildup in both Vietnam and the Philippines. Even South Korea, usually among the most solicitous of China’s neighbors, is now selling materiel to the Philippines.

Ultimately, intra-regional balancing like this probably offers the best prospect for avoiding a direct face-off between China and the United States in the western Pacific—and perhaps the best prospect of peace overall. In his 2012 book, The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy, Edward N. Luttwak writes of this weblike approach to counterbalancing as one of the most fundamental reflexes in the realm of strategy. Using a World War I–era analogy to describe what is taking place in the Pacific, he says, “The German action in building oceanic warships resulted, not in the acquisition of oceanic naval power in an otherwise unchanged world, but in a global strategic transformation that ensured the ultimate nullity of German naval power, and then Germany’s defeat.” Likening today’s fast-rising China to the fast-rising Germany of a century ago, he continues, “Only a militarily nonthreatening and diplomatically conciliatory grand strategy could have served Germany well—accelerating its peaceful rise to new heights of cultured prosperity.” This, Luttwak writes, “is perfectly obvious in retrospect. But by 1907, and indeed long before, that best strategy had become simply unthinkable for Germany’s political elite.”

The more China sees a coordinated response to its military buildup and naval forays, the more likely it might be to turn toward diplomacy, and to stop seeking overwhelming superiority in the region. And yet, of course, that is not the only possibility, as Luttwak’s analogy makes plain. The biggest question today is whether or not China’s political elite under Xi Jinping, an unusually assertive new leader, has crossed a line similar to the one that German elites did a century ago, or may soon cross it.

The Roots of Chinese Aggression

For decades, beginning with Deng Xiaoping, China’s geostrategic watchword was hide your capabilities and bide your time. Deng’s dictum has never been explicitly revoked, but China’s actions since mid-2013 clearly show that his approach has been cast aside. Hawks within the Chinese military establishment have increasingly touted the need for much greater assertiveness, to the point of bellicosity. In one of many recent examples, Liu Yazhou, a political commissar at the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University, sounded something like a strategist from Chinese antiquity when he said in a magazine interview: “An army that fails to achieve victory is nothing. Those borders where our army has won victories are more peaceful and stable, but those where we were too timid have more disputes.”

Although Liu has been written off by some as outside the mainstream, Xi Jinping has himself made a point of publicly celebrating weapons development and encouraging military preparedness. On his very first trip outside of Beijing after taking office in November 2012, he visited troops in the Guangzhou Military Region, reportedly telling them, “Being able to fight and win wars is the soul of a strong army.” In August 2013, he toured the Liaoning aircraft carrier before it began operations and exhorted the ship’s commander to improve its combat readiness. During a lecture last fall in Moscow, Shi Yinhong, a prominent Chinese historian of diplomacy, summarized the change of direction under Xi, noting the new leader’s frequent use of the theme of “the great resurgence of the Chinese nation”; a sharp decrease in the use of the once-favored phrase peaceful development; and the dropping altogether of Deng’s notion of taking a low profile.

China’s goal of regional supremacy is not hard to understand, and as China’s economic and military means catch up to its ambitions, we might only be entering the beginning stages of a long and dangerous period in which China seeks to assert itself more and more strongly. John J. Mearsheimer, the prominent realist and University of Chicago political scientist, has been predicting that China will not rise peacefully at least since his 2001 book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. In a debate last fall with Yan Xuetong, a well-known Chinese international-relations scholar, Mearsheimer said: “Should we expect China to have its own Monroe Doctrine? Of course we should.” But that doesn’t mean the United States will accommodate one. Mearsheimer argues that China is making a big mistake in the timing of its recent push, taking on America prematurely, rather than waiting another decade or two, when China’s relative strength might presumably be much greater, and the possibility of a fait accompli higher.

Many analysts peg the country’s recent change in outlook to a surge of confidence, even triumphalism, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, which delivered a body blow to most Western economies but left China relatively unscathed. Subsequent events, such as the false line in the sand that the White House drew over the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Washington’s inability to prevent Russia from annexing Crimea, may have contributed to a sense in Beijing that American energies abroad are flagging.

And yet, paradoxically, China’s new behavior appears to be a reflection not only of rising capability or self-confidence, but also of rising insecurity among the Communist Party leadership, whose legitimacy in the country’s post-ideological era has always rested on the narrow twin pillars of strong economic performance and nationalism. The explosion of social media in China has amplified the voice of populist hard-liners who constantly demand that their country stand tall and not shrink from using force. This seems to have instilled fear in the leadership of looking weak. Asked if it were possible for a Chinese leader to speak publicly of compromise with China’s neighbors, Wu Jianmin, a former Chinese diplomatic spokesman and a retired president of China Foreign Affairs University, told the Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese daily, “You would be a ‘traitor.’ ”

Meanwhile, China’s manufacturing sector, long the engine of its economic growth, has been shedding workers for several years now, as wages have risen and labor-saving technology has proliferated. The economy and employment have continued to grow quickly, but that growth has been fueled by an unprecedented run-up in corporate and government debt. By some recent measurements, productivity growth is declining. Arguably, China’s neighbors have as much reason for concern about the possibility of a sharp economic downturn in China, which many experts have long predicted, as they do about continued fast growth: if one pillar of legitimacy should weaken, the other would need to bear a heavier load.

China’s top leadership remains, to a large degree, a black box, and no one can say with certainty why the country is suddenly asserting itself so actively in East Asia. There is a case to be made, however, that this is the United States’ moment of peak opportunity vis-à-vis China, a chance to steer it into a less pugnacious mode of coexistence, in which international norms will be accepted, rather than reinvented, under Beijing’s aegis.

Although China will almost certainly soon boast the world’s largest economy, a number of indicators suggest that the country may have already entered a period of maximum potential relative to the rest of the world—that the economic red flags already waving may portend a change in economic trajectory, rather than a hiccup. The picture presented by China’s demographics is an unpromising one, of a labor force that is about to begin a sharp decline, and of a society that may grow old before it can grow truly rich, on a per capita basis. Even in China, few economists believe that the country can sustain anything like the growth rates of the past few decades, and many fear that it may have entered into what is known as the middle-income trap, in which once-supercharged developing economies find it difficult to continue rising up the industrial value chain, where innovation and advanced services replace low-end manufacturing. As the political scientist David Shambaugh recently noted, “Not a single Chinese company ranks among the BusinessWeek/Interbrand Top 100 global brands.”

If Washington can continue finding ways to bolster its allies, particularly the democracies of East Asia, and if the United States and China can avoid major miscalculations over the next few years, this moment of Chinese assertiveness may give way to a more serene and realistic self-confidence in Beijing. If China can successfully downshift, and if its government can slowly find new sources of legitimacy—through, say, greater transparency, more-stringent anticorruption measures, pollution control, and other nonmonetary lifestyle improvements for its people—its elites may come to see little advantage in confronting its neighbors.

One afternoon in January, I visited a Filipino naval installation at the edge of Manila to be briefed by a former admiral and national-security adviser, who told me that his country’s military spending was likely to double soon, with a large share of the increase going to the navy and the air force. A few minutes later, he put a question to me that was framed by an attitude of disbelief: “Do you think it is natural for a superpower to behave the way China is?”

As the long meeting broke up, a number of staff officers were encouraged to speak for the first time, and a captain turned to me and asked what I thought the timeline for a future clash with China might be. A few moments later he interrupted me as I unreeled a heavily hedged reply and said, “I hope it is not in my lifetime.”

Rising Tensions: Japan and China

A partial list of recent provocations

(1) Dec. 2012: A Chinese recon aircraft enters the airspace above the
Senkakus; Japan scrambles fighter jets in response.
(2) Jan. 2013: A Chinese frigate locks its fire-control radar on the
Japanese destroyer Yūdachi.
(3) Feb. 2013: Three Chinese surveillance ships enter disputed waters
around the Senkakus.
(4) Feb. 2013: Chinese aircraft are intercepted by Japanese fighter jets
in disputed airspace.
(5) July 2013: Chinese warships circumnavigate Japan.
(6) July 2013: China and Russia conduct a joint naval exercise in the
Sea of Japan.
(7) Nov. 2013: Beijing announces an “air-defense identification zone”
over most of the maritime area between China and Japan.
(8) June 2014: Chinese military aircraft fly within 100 feet of Japanese
military aircraft in disputed airspace.