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China leaders contend with strident nationalists, increasingly outspoken military

BEIJING (AP) — Upcoming joint U.S.-South Korean naval drills have sparked an unexpected outcry from Chinese nationalists, whose fiery rhetoric has been stoked by their country's rising economic strength and global clout.

While North Korea often issues diatribes condemning the routine war games off South Korea, this time, it was Chinese blogs and websites that exploded in anger at word that an American aircraft carrier might join the drills, bringing it close to Chinese waters. Some hawks even urged their country's military to make its own show of force.

"China should cover the Yellow Sea with ships and missiles and open fire and drive them back should the American military dare invade our territorial waters," a commentary on the popular ccvic.com news website demanded, though Beijing has given no sign it will make any military response.

Such nationalist rhetoric jibes with a growing outspokenness among ranking members of the People's Liberation Army that is stirring concern abroad and could hamper China's quest to be regarded as a rising — and responsible — member of international society.

While Chinese nationalism has been growing for the better part of two decades, the unusually vociferous response this time reflected a sense among Chinese that their soaring economy and rising profile on the international scene deserve greater respect.

The challenge for the country's leadership: Find a way to assuage nationalistic sentiments and assert newfound global influence while maintaining stable ties with Washington and a placid regional environment.

The anti-submarine exercises in the Yellow Sea near China's eastern province of Shandong are expected to begin late this month, although no official date has been given. U.S. defense officials say the Navy is considering dispatching the massive nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington to the waters where North Korea allegedly sank a South Korean warship in a major show of force by the U.S., which has vowed to protect South Korea and is seeking to blunt aggression from North Korea.

China's Foreign Ministry this week registered its concerns that the drills could prompt further rash behavior from North Korea's isolated and erratic communist regime.

Many here, however, see more nefarious intentions behind the war games.

"The U.S. is directly threatening China by sailing an aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea," wrote defense blogger Brother Guangdong on the Western Military Affairs site. "China must respond firmly and show the American imperialists we won't be pushed around."

Even the mainstream Global Times newspaper said a carrier deployment would "certainly be a provocative action toward China

Anger over the war games comes on top of a lengthening list of perceived outrages, including U.S. military surveillance missions in the South China Sea and a $6.4 billion arms U.S. sale to Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its own territory — and vows to recover by force if necessary.

Incensed by the arms sale, Beijing suspended exchanges between their militaries and snubbed U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates during his visit to the region this month.

PLA officers and sectors of the public had wanted to counter in even stronger terms, calling for retaliation against companies making the weapons and the withholding of Chinese cooperation over issues such as Iran and North Korea.

Over recent months, such nationalist sentiments have increasingly found their way into print with the publication of jingoistic tomes such as "Unhappy China," which details the causes of Beijing's anger at the West, and "China Dream" whose author, PLA Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu, states that China must seize global supremacy or face certain ruin.

Uniformed officers have spoken out publicly as well. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the PLA's general staff, took a swipe at Washington at a security conference earlier this month in Singapore, complaining of "the threat to use force in international relations, and interference in other countries' internal affairs."

Senior officers make such statements knowing they will be well received both among the public and with a significant portion of the political elite, said Michael Swaine, an expert on Chinese civil-military relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"And the senior (Chinese) leadership is probably either unaware of or does not actively suppress such views as long as they do not strongly attack the party's basic pro-reform and opening line or the authority of the party, or openly argue for conflict with the US," Swaine said.

Chinese politicians ignore nationalist voices at their peril, especially with a looming leadership transition set to begin in 2012. At such times, no aspiring leader can afford to appear soft toward the U.S., particularly on an issue as sensitive as Taiwan.

Such a stance does not come without costs, however, as nervous neighbors look to shore up their ties with the U.S. and hedge their bets against a more assertive China. Beijing needs to bear that in mind and resist the urge to swagger just because it can, said Oxford University China scholar Steve Tsang.

"If the top leadership allows its formal policy of rising peacefully to be breached because they just cannot resist wanting to feel good in asserting China's right to be respected properly, it can easily lead to miscalculation in policy," Tsang said.