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Year of the Dragon woes for China-U.S. ties?

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A collection of a new Chinese postage stamp depicting a Chinese dragon are seen at a stamp fair in Shanghai on Jan. 6. The new stamp has raised concerns that the post office has put a too hard an image on China as Beijing seeks to promote the nation's soft power.

BEIJING – Turns out the Year of the Dragon may be inauspicious for China-U.S. relations.

Beijing has just released a New Year’s commemorative stamp featuring a ferocious-looking dragon last week, stirring up talk that China was sending an intimidating message to the world. Meantime, the United States has proclaimed a new, more robust, military strategy in Asia

Are the two countries headed for a dangerous confrontation? Is the U.S. beginning to pursue a Cold War-style containment policy toward China?  What is China’s rightful place on the world stage?

As Beijing prepares for events celebrating the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s landmark trip to China in 1972 that opened up official diplomacy between the two countries, analysts say the superpowers are entering a new chapter in their uneasy relationship.

Questions about growing competition between the two super-powers are unnerving officials, as well as energizing opinion-makers, and bringing to the fore pessimistic theories about a possible great-power conflict.

‘Don't blame the mirror designer’
The “fiery debate” sparked by the release of the official Year of the Dragon stamp was emblematic of China’s self-image issues as it  continues to grow as a world power. 

The image shows the fang-baring face of the mythical ancestor of the Chinese, the most revered of the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac. Critics say the image sends a menacing message at a time of growing international unease over China’s rise.

 “When I saw the design of the dragon stamp in a newspaper, I was almost scared to death,” said Zhang Yihe, a noted writer, said on her micro blog on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like service.

 “It’s truly intimidating and powerful,” echoed another post. The “fierce stare and wide-open mouth” conveys an image that is “frightening and aggressive,” said another commentator

The stamp’s graphic artist Chen Shaohua defended his work, however, writing in his blog that the image is reflective of China’s newly -found “national confidence” as a major world power.

While past dragon stamps showed the creature in more gracious, gentler poses in keeping with the early years of China’s opening up to the word, he said that this year’s image of a “powerful, intimidating, fierce and confident dragon” befits China’s “prestige and self-confidence.”

Yue Luping, another micro-blogger, likened the dragon stamp to a mirror. “We have destroyed the old mirror of ourselves as poor old dragon.  After a hundred years, we see our image as powerful, menacing… Don’t blame the mirror designer.  You may be scared of what you see in the new mirror, but don’t forget, what you see is our very own image,” he wrote.

“A hundred years ago,” wrote Yue Luping, a respected art critic and blogger, “revolution shattered the mirror of our collective consciousness as Chinese. After a hundred years, Chen Shaohua's Year of the Dragon stamp has let us view our image once again: powerful, menacing, and not even 'auspicious looking' anymore; we can't reproach the mirror designer, it's a new mirror, you may be scared by what you see in the mirror but don't forget, that is our own image today.”

Stringer/China / Reuters

Workers decorate a dragon-shaped sculpture in preparation for a dragon dance which will involve more than 200 people during the upcoming Chinese New Year in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province on Jan. 9.

America’s shifting strategy
However, more baffling for the Chinese as they grapple with their global standing is the new defense strategy that U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled recently. It features a leaner military, but one with a greater focus on the Asia-Pacific and China’s growing power.

“The United States is deploying forces around the Asia-Pacific in advance in order to contain China’s rise,” warned Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, writing on the official newspaper of China’s People’s Liberation Army, in the strongest Chinese reaction so far to America’s new strategy.

“Who can believe that you are not aiming this at China, that this is not the return of a Cold War mentality?” he asked on the Chinese-language Liberation Daily.

“Obama said the country will ‘continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems,’ it would do better to do away with its entire Cold War mentality,” declared the state-run China Daily. The newspaper added that both countries will lose if the U.S. regards the region “as a wrestling ring in which to contain emerging powers like China.”

China’s official response has been more subdued, with the foreign ministry merely defending China’s policy as “defensive” and calling U.S. accusations as “groundless and untrustworthy."

But in a recent briefing with a select group of Western and Chinese media that included NBC News, China’s chief diplomat in charge of U.S. relations shared his misgivings about the U.S. moves. 

“Peace and prosperity are still what many countries want, not military alliances,” said Cui Tiankai, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister.

“I find it hard to understand why the U.S., which has the strongest military in the world, feels insecure about other countries,” said Cui. “I suggest the U.S. should do more to make other countries feel less worried about the U.S., so that other countries will feel safe and the U.S. will feel safe as well,” he added.

AFP - Getty Images

A click-through history of modern relations between the United States and China.

Doctrine of “offensive realism”
But to Professor John J. Mearsheimer, America’s strategic shift and the intensifying security competition in Asia all seem inevitable. 

Mearsheimer, a professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, is an international relations theorist who authored the pioneering book, “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” which propounds the theory of “offensive realism." The doctrine regards all great powers as perpetually on the offensive, constantly seeking security by maximizing power. He broadly anticipated America’s response to China’s growing challenge

In an interview with NBC News, Mearsheimer shared his views on the growing power play in Asia. 

“The Obama administration is definitely worried about China’s growing power as well as its aggressive rhetoric over the past two years, and that is why it is beginning to build a balancing coalition to contain China,” he said.

“My realist theory tells me that China will try to dominate the Asia-Pacific region as it grows more powerful and that the United States and China’s neighbors will try to contain Chinese power. It is too soon to say for sure whether my theory will be proved correct, but recent developments suggest that my theory will have a lot to say about Asia’s future,” he added.

Reflecting on the upcoming 40-year anniversary of Nixon’s landmark visit to China in 1972 that changed U.S.-China, Mearsheimer pointed out that U.S-China relations are based on realpolitik.

“Relations between the United States and China are largely determined by the balance of power in Asia, not by principles or ideals,” he said. “Beijing and Washington were driven together 40 years ago because they faced a common threat – the Soviet Union. But the Soviet Union is now gone and the Asian balance of power has changed drastically.”

For Mearsheimer, China’s new 21st century role in the world, has changed the power dynamic.

“Today, China is the most powerful state in the region and if it continues its rapid growth over the next 30 years, it will be by far the most powerful country in Asia.  I believe that it will try to dominate the region the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere.  However, Washington will go to great lengths to prevent that outcome, which means that China and America are destined to become rivals if China continues its rise,” he observed.

“There is little that Chinese or American leaders can do to avoid strategic competition, which carries with it the real possibility of armed conflict between those two great powers,” he warned.

Agreement and disagreement
“I totally agree with Professor John Mearsheimer,” said Dr. Yan Xuetong, China’s top international security expert and dean of the Institute of Contemporary International Relations at Tsinghua University.  “As the gap of comprehensive power between the U.S. and China narrows, the tension between the two will intensify and there will be more conflict rather than less,” he told NBC News. 

“But I disagree that this competition will get out of control and escalate into war,” he said. “Both sides have nuclear weapons which will deter them from going to war. I have great confidence in nuclear weapons, which have the important political function of preventing war between China and the United States.”

Professor Yan considers the recent developments as validation of his argument against the danger of “superficial friendship” between America and China. “I think that the ‘superficial friendship’ will turn into ‘superficial enmity’ this year,” he predicted.

“We are not partners but we need to carefully manage the competition to prevent it from escalating into a major confrontation,” he said.

“If both sides fail to admit the competitive relationship and instead consider it as a partnership, then that, for me, will be very dangerous,” he warned.

Researcher Ting Zhao contributed to this report.