While no country wants to pick a fight with China, government officials and independent analysts are openly wondering whether the West and its partners may need to adopt a policy of "containment" similar to that which was designed to keep the former Soviet Union in check during the Cold War.
"We cannot predict what kind of power China will be in the 21st century," Winston Lord, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told a congressional hearing last week. "God forbid, we may have to turn, with others, to a policy of containment. I would hope not. We're trying to prevent that."
Apprehension about China's intentions is so acute that it is playing an ever larger role in Western policy towards Russia. Desperate to avoid a Moscow-Peking alliance, the West is adopting a more conciliatory stance towards Russia - to the point where certain once-sacrosanct goals, such as the incorporation of central and eastern European countries into Nato, are now being quietly put to one side.
While a formal Russian-Chinese military pact is highly unlikely, there is little doubt that the two countries have a warmer relationship now than at any time since the 1950s. The Chinese premier, Li Peng, recently visited Moscow and joined President Boris Yeltsin in declaring that the governments of Russia and China would no longer tolerate lectures from the West on how to behave at home and abroad.
The Russian-Chinese friendship has been cemented by Russian arms sales to China, including fighter planes, which have assisted Peking's military build-up and caused considerable alarm in the Asia-Pacific region. "It is important to bring into the open this underlying sense of discomfort, even insecurity, about the political and military ambitions of China," Singapore's Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, said recently.
An Australian government defence policy statement, published last December, said: "Over the next decade, China is likely to be the most powerful new influence on the strategic affairs of our wider region. The relative peace in Asia may not last."
To the alarm of European governments, the Russian-Chinese relationship has blossomed at a time when US relations with China are probably at their lowest point since Richard Nixon, the late president, made his ground- breaking first visit to Peking in 1972. The US has not yet abandoned its hope of binding a reforming, prosperous China into a global web of commercial and political ties, but the strategy is beginning to wear thin.
In recent weeks, rows have broken out over Taiwan, alleged Chinese missile sales to Pakistan, and human rights. China withdrew its ambassador from Washington and withheld approval from the proposed new US envoy to Peking after the US allowed Taiwan's President, Lee Teng-Hui, to attend a reunion at Cornell, his old university.
The Washington Post last week quoted US intelligence officials as saying there was strong evidence that China had given M-11 medium-range ballistic missiles to Pakistan, an act that, if confirmed, could force the US government to impose trade sanctions on Peking. The Chinese government denied the allegation and viewed it as one more example of US hostility.
Human rights have been a thorn in the US-Chinese relationship ever since China's rulers crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 by killing hundreds of people. The issue acquired extra sensitivity last month when Chinese authorities detained a Chinese-American human rights activist, Harry Wu, after he crossed into China from Kazakhstan.
Despite repeated requests, the Chinese government has refused to tell the US embassy in Peking where Mr Wu is being held. The US State Department issued a strong protest last week after a US diplomat, acting upon information supplied by Chinese officials, went in search of Mr Wu in the remote province of Xinjiang, only to discover that he was not there - or was being held incommunicado.
Like every government, the US clearly does not shape its foreign policy purely around considerations of human rights. But the blatant internal political repression in China has reached such levels that it is difficult for the Clinton administration to turn a blind eye on the grounds that China, with its 1.1 billion people, is the world's most dynamic emerging market.
There are also rising concerns in the Asia-Pacific region about Chinese territorial ambitions. These are by no means limited to Taiwan and Hong Kong, both considered integral parts of China by the Peking government.
While the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule in 1997 could result in a major local upheaval, an equally serious problem is Peking's claim to virtually the whole of the South China Sea as part of Chinese territorial waters. The Chinese navy recently moved into Mischief Reef, one of the Spratly Islands, a chain off the Vietnamese coast whose sovereignty is disputed among Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam as well as China.
In responding to Chinese pressure, the US is using a mixture of military and diplomatic initiatives. The Pentagon released a report in February that affirmed the US intention to keep about 100,000 troops in the East Asian arena for the foreseeable future. The US is also poised to re-establish full diplomatic relations with Vietnam, a traditional rival to China.
America's European allies, which have a smaller security stake than the US in East Asian affairs, are still hoping that relations with China can be kept on a constructive course by expanding economic ties. Hence the European Commission unveiled a plan last week calling, among other things, for early Chinese entry into the World Trade Organisation and a new EU- Chinese Business Council in Peking.
From a European perspective, the most striking aspect of the West's response to China's increasing power is the way that it has convinced Western governments of the need for an accommodation with Russia. Any doubts Western leaders entertain about Mr Yeltsin's semi-authoritarian political system have been pushed aside in the belief that, now of all times, the West needs a co-operative Russia.
That is one reason why neither the US nor the EU has had a great deal to say in recent months about Russia's massive use of force against civilians in the secessionist Chechen republic. Indeed, at last month's EU summit in Cannes, European leaders gave the go-ahead for a new trade agreement with Russia, on the debatable grounds that the Kremlin was abandoning the military option in favour of a negotiated political settlement with the Chechens.
Even more significantly, Western governments are no longer pressing the issue of arranging the early admission into Nato of central and eastern European countries once tied to Moscow in the Warsaw Pact. Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany stunned Poles last week by saying that Nato's expansion should go hand in hand with the eastern enlargement of the EU - a formula that would prolong the security vacuum in central and eastern Europe until into the next decade.
Prominent US politicians are thinking along the same lines. Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said last month: "By forcing the pace of Nato enlargement at a volatile and unpredictable moment in Russia's history, we could place ourselves in the worst of all security environments: rapidly declining defence budgets, broader responsibilities and heightened instability."
Some European strategic thinkers see Russian friendship as vital at a time of growing Chinese power and instability in the Islamic world.
"It should not be forgotten that Nato countries and Russia have much of the strategic agenda in common, such as the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and stopping the spread of missile technology," said Michael Sturmer, director of a German foreign affairs institute.
The wooing of Russia does not yet amount to a policy of containment towards China. But there is much pessimism in Western capitals over whether China will modify its behaviour in coming years so that containment becomes unnecessary. In any event, the real losers in this grand international chess game are the central and eastern Europeans, condemned to insecurity because of the West's preoccupation with China and Russia.Reuse content