The media and the foreign policy establishment have invested a lot of credibility in building up China as a real American rival, but the Chinese are almost all paper and no tiger. China is a fragile society whose main hold on stability is economic growth at a time when the prospects for global economic growth are poor. China isn't on the same kind of precipice as Pakistan yet but the Chinese government has to constantly and furiously work the levers of power to avoid that kind of instability. The balance of power isn't shifting toward China. It's shifting more toward the American side as other countries develop even more severe problems than the United States.
If you remember, not long after President Bush became president, we had that incident with the US spy plane hugging Chinese airspace, which was bumped by a Chinese jet intercepter and forced to make an emergency landing on Chinese territory. Then just days ago we had a strangely similar incident at sea. Again, just a few months into the tenure of a new president.
Now we have Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao publicly worrying about the safety of the almost $1 trillion of US Treasuries China owns. That they'd have some concern isn't surprising. But having the head of government sound the warning bell is hardly the best approach to preserving confidence in US debt.
This strikes me as all of a piece, pretty unsubtle signaling of a shifting balance of power.
The Chinese would like global elites to believe that they're a rising power that will eventually become competitive with the United States. But the current balance of power is so much in favor of America that we can maintain a heavy-duty naval patrol just off their coast. If the Chinese had much power, they would be able to make the U. S. back off.
But they don't have the power to make us back off. If they did, the Chinese wouldn't have to pull off "North Korea-type" stunts with our ships and publicly muse about the stability of our economy.