THE defining geopolitical drama of the next century will be the battle for power and influence between China and the US.

The US Senate was expected to pass a bill yesterday allowing for the imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods. This confrontational mood poses a dilemma for China’s neighbours. China is now the largest trading partner for Japan, India, Australia, South Korea and most of the nations of southeast Asia. But these countries still have their most important military relationship with the US. How long can their economic and strategic interests point in different directions?

Not for long, if one is to judge by an editorial in the People’s Daily last week. The official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party took aim at “certain countries” that “think as long as they can balance China with the help of US military power, they are free to do whatever they want”.

The article was probably provoked by a statement from Japan and the Philippines, the previous day, in which they promised to boost naval co-operation and implicitly disputed China’s extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The irony, of course, is that it is precisely Chinese sabre-rattling, exemplified by that article in the People’s Daily, that is sending its neighbours running screaming into the arms of Uncle Sam. Until recently, China seemed to be playing an intelligent waiting game — relying on its growing economic strength to draw its neighbours inexorably into a Chinese sphere of influence. Now China risks overplaying its hand and so creating the anti- Chinese alliance it fears and denounces.

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