America's every move in the Far East is watched with side-glancing suspicion by China's military strategists. Their deeper paranoia: "encirclement" by the world's superpower.
Now those strategists are reportedly breathing fire at the latest US action: a preliminary agreement with Japan this month to boost Tokyo's military cooperation with American forces.
By strengthening the US-Japan security treaty - which was born at the height of the cold war, in 1960 - Washington has created a lightening rod for those within China who argue that the US intends not to "engage" China but contain its growing economic and military might.
China's Foreign Ministry said that the US-Japan pact was a relic of the cold war, and added that it should in no event be extended to cover any third country, possibly an implied warning that the US should not defend Taiwan.
Chinese officials at a Defense Ministry-affiliated think-tank raged against any expansion of the Japanese-American military "axis," and called for the US to pull its troops out of South Korean and Japan.
David Shambaugh, a China scholar at George Washington University in the US capital, said that in talks he held with Chinese officials in Beijing this month, the most bellicose attitudes toward the US were voiced by the Army. He quoted officials at the defense-related Chinese International Institute for Strategic Studies as saying "now that the cold war is over, the US-Japanese alliance should be dissolved."
Professor Shambaugh added that several officials at the institute called on the US "to destroy all its alliances abroad, both bilateral and multilateral."
The immediate target of military complaints against the US are within the Chinese government. "Within China, the proposal to widen US-Japan defense ties has fueled attacks on the Chinese foreign ministry by the People's Liberation Army for being too soft toward Washington," says a senior Chinese official.
"While they are concentrated in the Chinese military, anti-Western nationalists in many agencies are calling on the president and the Foreign Ministry to take a harder line toward American economic and military pressure," says the official.
And such sentiments are finding widening support here. "Calls in Washington to curtail trade with China and the strengthened alliance between the US and Japan, China's oldest enemy, both appear to be aimed at countering 'the China threat,' " says a former democracy activist here.
ONE concern is that a cycle of mutual fear may feed on itself. "Just as there are loud voices in the US asking for containment of China, so are there Chinese nationalists who think Washington is bullying Beijing," says Zhang Yebai, a senior researcher at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"Ill-informed, nationalistic books like 'The Coming Conflict with China' in the US and 'China Can Say No' here are feeding misunderstandings between us," says Mr. Zhang, who heads the academy's American studies unit. "There is a rising danger that nationalistic sentiment could begin to overshadow the view held by scholars and foreign policy experts on both sides on the soundness and potential for growth in Chinese-American ties."
An American analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the US-Japanese defense pact was being reexamined in light of North Korea's growing threat. He says US officials have tried to ease Beijing's concerns by claiming the pact ensures Asia-wide stability. He said that the preliminary report on boosting US-Japan cooperation was "floated as a trial balloon" and that it might be revised in line with Chinese objections.