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China will be especially cautious about using military force to solve the disputes,” an op-ed in the China Daily newspaper said last week. “China sticks to a defensive national defense policy, but it will firmly defend its sovereignty and territory to the best of its ability, just as any other country would.”

Even so, Beijing’s perceived heavy-handedness in such confrontations appears to be strengthening Washington’s hand:

Singapore has agreed to allow the U.S. to deploy four new Littoral Combat Ships designed to fight close to shorelines to its main naval port starting next year. But to avoid the appearance of opening up too much, it has demanded the ships’ crews live on board while in port and their families stay elsewhere.

• Indonesia, which had only limited military relations with Washington in the 1990s because of U.S. human rights concerns, is now looking to buy a broad range of American hardware and is joining in joint maneuvers.

• The Philippines, which kicked U.S. forces bases off their soil in 1992, is actively courting increased U.S. military support, including allowing more troops in on a rotational basis.

Washington is already testing out that approach in Australia, which has agreed to allow up to 2,500 Marines to deploy to the northern city of Darwin. The Marines will use Australian facilities, not a new U.S. base, and the plan has met with little opposition. The first detachment of Marines arrived in April.

Most of the troops going to Darwin were freed up by another deal aimed at placating a key ally — an agreement with Tokyo this year to move about 9,000 Marines off of the island of Okinawa.