TAIPEI, Taiwan | U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's thinly veiled criticism of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea has angered Beijing's leadership and quietly pleased Asian countries concerned about China's expanding military power.
Mrs. Clinton spoke less than 48 hours before U.S. and South Korean warships started high-profile military exercises in the East Sea/Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea, and the criticism is raising fears that long-dormant tensions between China and the U.S. could spike.
That would have worrying consequences for global stability, which benefits greatly from coordination between Beijing and Washington on issues such as nuclear proliferation and financial stability.
Speaking Friday at an Asian security forum in Hanoi, Mrs. Clinton called on China to resolve its offshore territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and other regional parties through international consultations.
China favors a bilateral approach because it thinks that would give it more control of the outcome. Low-key attempts to resolve the disputes have gone on for years but achieved little.
The Foreign Ministry in Beijing angrily characterized Mrs. Clinton's comment as "an attack" and quoted Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi as saying that it would only make "things worse and more difficult to resolve."
International relations specialist Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania said that behind the Chinese statements are Beijing's long-standing efforts to assert sovereignty over 1,423,000 square miles of South China Sea territory, giving it control over potentially rich oil and gas deposits and strategically important shipping lanes.
"At some point, actions, in this case Chinese, force reactions," Mr. Waldron wrote in an e-mail. "[The U.S. has] allies in the region for whom suddenly being washed or surrounded by Chinese territorial waters would come as a shock. So [the U.S. has] the unattractive choice of doing something, or doing nothing and losing [its] allies and [its] reputation."
China's South China Sea stance reflects its burgeoning military power. The People's Liberation Army's naval forces have been the biggest beneficiaries of a buildup that is reaching critical mass, funded by annual double-digit increases in the defense budget for almost every year of the past two decades.
During that time, the Chinese navy has developed or bought — chiefly from Russia — new submarines, destroyers and frigates, many outfitted with sophisticated missiles and stealth capabilities.
The expansion has made the 225,000-strong naval force into Asia's largest and allowed it to expand its mission beyond retaking Taiwan, for 60 years one of China's core goals. Now it is focused on projecting the country's power deeper into the Pacific and protecting sea lanes vital for trade and energy imports.
None of this has gone down well in many parts of Southeast and South Asia, where the U.S. is seen more and more as a counterweight to growing Chinese power.
Former American antagonist Vietnam is encouraging this trend, and officials in Singapore have cautioned against a wholesale American retreat from a region where it once was the predominant foreign power.
In Northeast Asia as well, China's expanding power is encouraging many influential commentators to press for a resolute American defense presence. That includes the areas where South Korea and the United States are practicing naval maneuvers this week to deter Chinese ally North Korea from replicating the kind of attack that an international commission says killed 46 South Korean sailors aboard a South Korean warship in March.
Retired Lt. Gen. Noboru Yamaguchi, a professor of military history at Japan's National Defense Academy, said the best way to preserve peace between Tokyo and Beijing is to encourage closer Japanese defense ties with Washington.
"I am now arguing that we have to strengthen the alliance with the U.S.," he said in an interview. "By doing so, we can get closer to China."
Gen. Yamaguchi said relations between South Korea and China have deteriorated in recent years — not least because of China's continuing support for the North — but that the South's ties with Washington remain strong.
"[That's] what allows me to sleep at night," he said.
Despite Gen. Yamaguchi's sentiments, some U.S. academics question Washington's resolve in seriously confronting China because of fears that Beijing could retaliate in ways that hurt American interests.
Edward Friedman, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said there appears to be disagreement within the U.S. government over how to deal with China. One side wants to remain soft on China to encourage it to consume more U.S. goods, while the security establishment favors a hard-line approach, he said.
The security establishment "cannot help but see that [Beijing] is ever more assertive in establishing a China-centered order in Asia," he wrote in an e-mail.
Added the University of Pennsylvania's Mr. Waldron: "The impulse to mollify China is very strong in Washington these days, strengthened by the way we are overextended already in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the longer-term view, dating back to [Henry] Kissinger and [Richard] Nixon but still surviving, that Beijing, and not Tokyo, is somehow naturally Washington's appropriate partner in Asia."
Former Pentagon official Thomas Mahnken said a key question in determining the future of U.S.-China policy is whether the elements in the American administration that favored containment prevail over those that favor engagement.
"During the Bush administration and into the presidency of Obama it has been the Treasury Department and perhaps to a lesser extent the State Department that has had the dominant hand in China policy, he said. "Both of these are bureaucracies that tend to favor engagement."