OWL'S HEAD, Maine — Vice President Joe Biden has set off on perhaps the most sensitive and significant foreign policy venture of his five years under President Barack Obama.
Indeed, it may be a more important undertaking than anything Hillary Clinton did in the 956,733 miles she traveled as secretary of state.
During three decades of record growth, China has pole-vaulted its citizens into virtually undreamt-of economic prosperity and equally unimaginable pollution. Now, China has decided its time to parlay its position as an economic powerhouse into one as a forceful strategic player in East Asia.
Biden's trip is taking him to a triangle of countries, Japan, China, and South Korea. Each has competing interests and conflicting friendships.
China will clearly be Asia's superpower in the future. But the future hasn't quite arrived, and Japan, even after two decades in the dead zone economically, has a GDP per capita of about six times China's.
The smallest of the three, South Korea, with perhaps the hardest-working population in the world, will forever be pulling up the rear, even after it reunifies with the North and turns the entire peninsula into an overachieving workhouse.
And while Japan and South Korea, as mutual allies of the United States, would be a formidable team, the Koreans still don't like the Japanese, their cruel colonial masters in the early 20th century.
The Japanese treated the Chinese even worse. Stories from the Rape of Nanking in 1937 and 1938 rival tales of horror from Nazi Germany. During that period, the Japanese had their own vision of themselves as a superior race.
The difference is, since 1945, Germany has reintegrated itself into Europe both economically and emotionally in a way that, for all its pacifism and pre-eminent role in the world's economy, the inward-looking Japanese have not in Asia.
Indeed, despite a birth rate that puts them on the road to extinction, the Japanese still have the most restrictive immigration practices of any industrialized nation.
And now, just as the Chinese are beginning to push an Asian version of the Monroe Doctrine, the Japanese, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, are becoming more nationalistic, reviving memories of the imperial Japan mindset, and making his island nation even less popular among its neighbors.
China's recently announced air defense zone in the East China Sea around a few uninhabited islands long claimed by Japan has suddenly brought to the fore all the potential for conflict.
The US has treaty obligations with Japan that complicate the situation. But the real complicating factor for the future is how the US, which has had the dominant role in Asia going on 70 years, adjusts to a China that, over the next several decades, will inevitably seek the predominant role in Asia.
With Hawaii as our 50th state, the US is legitimately a Pacific power. The irony is that our annexation of Hawaii, at the end of the 19th century, was seen as a bulwark against European expansion into Asia. And, obviously, despite our extensive bases in Guam and throughout Asia, China's physical mass clearly overwhelms any US presence.
We're in for a lengthy period of heightened tension. Biden was quoted, in a joint press meeting with Japan's Abe, as observing that the US is "deeply concerned by [China's] attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea."
Concerned or not, it's going to happen. But, without sounding Pollyannaish, it can happen without war.
In a recent blog about China's clashing ambitions with the US's existing role in Asia, Harvard Professor Steve Walt cited the disastrous results of Japanese and German aggression in the 20th century. He wrote, "a rising power seeking regional hegemony would be wise to avoid war. When you try to gain hegemony with one bold roll of the iron dice, others will gang up to stop you. By contrast, slow, steady accretions of power are less likely to trigger a balancing response, and they also avoid the inherent uncertainties of open warfare."
The good news is, that despite the rise of nationalism in today's China, the Chinese man-in-the-street has no more interest in risking his newfound economic strength in a conflict with the US than does the typical American; and China's leaders are clearly aware of the dangers of aggressively changing the status quo. The even better news is that China, traditionally, has taken a very long view when it comes to meeting its objectives.
Meanwhile, new statistics rating educational performance in 65 countries worldwide came out this week showing that US high school students have not only persisted with their middling scores but have actually lost ground in the past three years. China, like much of the rest of Asia (and Europe as well), is out-educating the US. A China that takes a long view can just sit back and watch the US slip into mediocrity.
On the other hand, as one Chinese dissident pointed out in a New York Times op-ed piece the other day, a warmongering China could be a win-win for that man-in-the-street: "Let's fight," he quoted a slogan making the rounds in China recently, "If we win, we get the islands; if we lose we get a new China" — meaning that the Communist Party would presumably be swept away were it to start a losing war.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives in Owl's Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.