American military bases aren’t exactly novel across the Int’l Dateline—we’ve been in Japan since the Emperor’s surrender and Korea since partition—but with Sino-American tensions tightening over economic issues bilateral and otherwise there is the perception that any deep breath anticipates a tsunami. Let’s take a look at a slightly annotated map of the Pacific Rim; the blue markers represent U.S. Military bases (thanks to Google Maps, boredom killer):
It may not be the prettiest rendering of military omnipresence but this gets the simple point of American ubiquity in the Pacific. There are multiple bases in both Japan and Korea, two countries that feel equal queasiness towards what they see as an extension of American pugilism (Okinawa in particular has seen the synthesis of pacifism and sovereignty bound by searing memories) and Chinese territorial gluttony (China sees the South and Eat China Seas as sovereign property, the half a dozen other countries in the area beg to differ). Bases still dot a curve mirroring the Eastern coast of China from Guangzhou to Beijing with several bolted into geographic neighbors Japan and Korea.
It’s foolish to think that America would enter into any sort of armed conflict with China in the next five years, especially with the European economic situation needing every solution on the board; the concept of Chinese sovereign wealth funds flooding the European bond market may be politically and patriotically unpalatable (and has recently been tabled) but these are odd times. But the geographic formation of force is undeniably symbolic and the Chinese have taken notice of any perceived and real American incursions into regional spheres of influence. Potentially more important, though, is that the Chinese are now strong enough to bluntly challenge those moves with thinly veiled considerations of retaliation; 20 years ago they would have settled for shallow sabre rattling or simmering silence.
We are not on the precipice of Napoleonic pinpricks, but it’d be naive to think that conflict is an impossible hegemonic endgame between United States and China. The American flags raised around the Pacific Rim were not created with one eye towards the Middle Kingdom—its destruction at the hand of the Japanese durring WWII and subsequent starvation under Mao gave no indication of its future power—but now it seems like the presence of the Stars and Stripes may be a study in Clairvoyance 101 at the National War College.