China's transition into a global power worries many other regional countries on the frontier of its growing hegemony, as well as Western powers who say its bold actions put the communist country at "a crossroads" for the role it will play on the world stage.
The U.S. continues to establish and strengthen alliances in the region, and now waits for China to rein in moves that test the patience of its neighbors, such as recent developments in its military might.
"China's peaceful rise as a global power is reaching a crossroads," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a Foreign Policy Group event last week. "Its future course will be determined by how it manages new economic challenges, differences with its neighbors and strains in its political and economic system."
America's "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific zone has been a focal point of recent foreign policy overtures, including top military and diplomatic leaders' trips to South Korea, Philippines, Singapore, and Australia.
These attempts to strengthen regional alliances come at a time when China is expanding many of its powers, including a military it previously employed largely to address domestic issues. It successfully landed a jet on its aircraft carrier, Liaoning, last week. China has been refurbishing the Soviet-era vessel since purchasing it from Ukraine in the late 1990s.
In response, Japan, a pacifist nation since the end of World War II, has squared up against China's growing seafaring force. It has sent millions of dollars worth of military aid to regional countries, and is stepping up port visits abroad, reports The New York Times.
China and Japan have clashed in recent months over disputed lands, territories and resources, and one another's resulting military buildup.
The commander of U.S. naval power in the Pacific understands China's developments, but cautioned the communist nation to proceed with care.
"If I were China, and I were in the economic position China is in, and I were in a position where I have to look after my global security interests, I would consider building an aircraft carrier," says Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command. "I might consider building several aircraft carriers."
The real question is not whether Western powers and their allies should feel threatened by China's actions, but whether China will be "successfully integrated into a global security environment" in a peaceful way, he said Thursday while speaking to reporters at the Pentagon.
"If the issue is that they're not part of that global security environment, then we have to be concerned about that," says Locklear. This environment is "already fairly mature, globally."
The Australian ambassador to the U.S. acknowledges the regional balance of power is shifting dramatically, but says the military buildup is not yet a cause for alarm.
"There is no doubt that the southeast Asian region is … where there is the most significant increase in the acquisition of arms anywhere around the globe," Amb. Kim Beazley tells U.S. News.
"It would be wrong to describe it yet as a classic arms race, that is, somebody develops a capacity in relation to someone else's capacity," he says of China and Japan's military back-and-forth. "The acquisition of maritime powers is a product of a phase of development, rather than simply a product of an anxiety of one's neighbors."
China's growing expenditures on its military are consistent with any country that wants to project more of a global influence, he says. The region looks to the U.S. to help maintain the balance that allows all countries, powerful and less powerful, to "pursue their interests without a sense of pressure or problem."
"To ensure it stays that way, it's critical the U.S. plays a role," he says. "The fact that the U.S. engages in the region is important to most of the wealthy powers."
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Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com.