BEIJING — While Beijing’s public response to President Obama’s more muscular China policy has been muted, behind the scenes the U.S. president’s sudden moves to contest rising Chinese power are setting the capital on edge.
During his ongoing nine-day swing through the Asia-Pacific region, Mr. Obama already has unveiled a plan for an expanded U.S. Marines presence in Australia, advocated a new free-trade area that leaves China out, and called on Beijing not to buck the current world order.
The Beijing government is trying to understand the shift, tasking academic experts to review the initiatives and submit options on how to respond.
“The U.S. is overreacting,” said Zhu Feng, an international relations expert at Peking University who was asked to study Washington’s moves and make recommendations. He said the government may feel bewildered by the Obama initiatives.
Meanwhile, state media are warning of a new U.S. containment strategy.
“The U.S. sees a growing threat to its hegemony from China. Therefore, America’s strategic move east is aimed in practical terms at pinning down and containing China and counterbalancing China’s development,” the official Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary.
Mr. Obama told the Australian Parliament on Thursday that the U.S. intends “to deter threats to peace” and will remain an Asia-Pacific power.
Mr. Obama also is pushing for the rapid expansion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-backed, free-trade agreement that so far has drawn mostly smaller countries. Japan and Canada have expressed interest in joining, while Beijing has been left out.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman called it natural for the U.S. and Australia to improve relations, just as China wants to do with each, but said such improvements “should take into consideration the interests of other countries.”
Despite its evident wariness, the Chinese government appears to be in watching mode.
Mr. Obama repeatedly has said in public that the U.S. welcomes China’s rise and wants it to play a role as a responsible power. Both sides have much at stake, and their economies - the world’s largest and second-largest - are deeply intertwined, doing $456 billion in trade, overwhelmingly in China’s favor.
Beijing can ill afford a serious rift with Washington. The normally risk-averse authoritarian leadership is preparing for a politically tricky handover of power to a new generation of leaders next year.
And, while the U.S. suffers from high joblessness, anemic growth and other economic woes, China also is challenged by a slowing of its robust growth that could see unemployment and banks’ bad loans rise at a time when the Chinese have come to expect ever-higher standards of living.
Managing those expectations has become difficult, particularly in regard to the United States.