Maybe China took George W. Bush at his word when he proclaimed, as a presidential candidate, that the United States should be more humble in how it treats other nations.
Upset at American planes snooping on its military signals, China found a chance to humble the mighty US forces in Asia by holding one plane and its crew for 11 days. China probably lost more than it gained, but nonetheless, Uncle Sam's nose was tweaked.
Such incidents are what US officials call "the hegemon problem," or a perception that the US has become, almost by default, the bully on the global block, abusing its dominance (or hegemony).
Having won the cold war, the US now reigns as an unchecked giant in economic and military power. That alone creates unease among both friends and adversaries.
Europe worries about US insensitivities to its concerns, Russia grouses at US influence on former Soviet turf, but it is mainly in Asia that many nations have challenged US "unilateralism," and not just militarily.
China, of course, would want to be the most assertive in trying to roll back the US military presence that was built up in Asia during the cold war. But India, in its 1998 nuclear-weapons testing, sent a signal that it, too, wants to be a bigger regional player. North Korea, fearful the US might take advantage of its weakness, sent up a test missile in 1999 that, in theory, would reach Alaska.
Malaysia and Singapore have been the most outspoken critics of the way the US appears to throw around its financial clout or make unwanted jabs on human rights. Asians will not forget how, during the 1997 financial crisis, the US used its clout in the International Monetary Fund to force reforms on Indonesia.
Japan has been trying to rally its neighbors into either a regional trade bloc or an Asian-only IMF that would exclude the US. Its diplomats even talk now of reducing US forces in Japan.
Being perceived as a "hegemon" may be America's No. 1 foreign policy problem. The old, cold-war-era reflexes of "being tough" can often backfire. A lone superpower needs to learn how to create coalitions that help it, while preventing opposing coalitions from developing.
Sometimes only a change of style is needed. But often the US may need to change policies without appearing to be weak. With China, that would be very difficult. But having now shown Beijing that the US won't be humiliated into apologizing, President Bush should come up with ways of showing what he means by a more humble US.
Otherwise, he might be misinterpreted, and tested, again.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor