People are puzzled by China's (mis)behaviour in the South and East China Seas. Why are they risking so much for so little? Numerous theories have been advanced, ranging from the plausible and rational to the overtly racist.
I prefer a non-partisan explanation by Hugh White, a former Australian defence official and now an academic. Writing recently in a blog run by the Lowy Institute for International Policy based in Sydney, White paints a truly scary picture of the mutual but parallel misperception between Beijing and Washington. Since neither side wants war, both sides think, it becomes a matter of proving your own resolve to the other to move things your way. You can see where this is going. White does not think China's aim is unreasonable. It wants to overhaul - not overthrow - the US-backed regional security system. It wants to diminish - not eliminate - America's pre-eminent role.
Point 1: The consensus in Washington is that China will not seek dominance in Asia if it means risking a war with the US that it is certain to lose. But that's what encourages China to pick "small" fights with its neighbours over issues that don't immediately engage American interests: an island here, a shoal there. A string of "petty" maritime disputes may alienate China's neighbours, but they also undermine their confidence that when push comes to shove, the US will always come to the rescue.
Point 2: The thinking in Beijing is that the US will not risk a war over regional disputes in which it has no direct stake. China can then rearrange the regional order to play a more dominant role in line with its emerging status as a world power once US allies lose confidence in their partnerships and alliances with the US.
So China must contain the small disputes while the US will try to generalise them. For example, instead of individual maritime fights over, say, the Scarborough Shoal and the Diaoyu Islands, US defence chief Chuck Hagel has turned them into disputes about freedom of navigation. As White has observed, all this means China's actions will become "more flagrant and US commitments more categorical" over disputes that most people would consider "minor" - exactly what the headlines read these days.