While Beijing's public response to President Barack 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, Obama has already 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.
Obama told the Australian Parliament on Thursday that the U.S. intends "to deter threats to peace" and will remain an Asia-Pacific power. On Friday, Obama will become the first U.S. president to attend a summit of East Asian leaders, a region that China sees as its rightful sphere of influence.
Obama is also 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. Obama has repeatedly said in public remarks 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 Chinese have come to expect ever-higher standards of living.
Managing those expectations has become difficult, particularly in regard to the United States. Beijing has played up its handling of Washington, especially after President Hu Jintao held a pomp-filled summit with Obama in Washington in January, and repeatedly invoked the leadership's intention to build a constructive partnership.
Yu Wanli of Peking University's School of International Studies said many Chinese would likely view Obama's new posture as a betrayal of that professed partnership and that could narrow Beijing's options, forcing a tougher response.
"Public opinion may put the Chinese government in an embarrassing situation," said Yu, who specializes in U.S.-China relations.
A reliably nationalistic media that pander to the Chinese sense of patriotism and deep-seated suspicion of the U.S. have already sounded the alarm. The Global Times, a tabloid owned by the Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper, hit hard upon the theme of besiegement. It quoted a People's Liberation Army major general as saying that the expanded U.S. training and deployment base in Australia was one of a series of U.S. installations to "encircle China from the north to the south of the Asia-Pacific region."
In a separate article entitled "Six ways of countering the eastward movement of American strategy," the Global Times alleged the U.S. was seeking to weaken China by nurturing hostile forces within the country while wrecking Beijing's relations with its neighbors. It suggested Beijing reduce its massive purchases of U.S. government debt _ which have helped keep U.S. interest rates low _ to get Washington to stop meddling in the South China Sea, where China is asserting claims to islands, reefs and atolls contested by five other governments.
"As long as we stick to our guns, time will be on our side," it said.
Associated Press writers Charles Hutzler and Alexa Olesen in Beijing contributed to this report.