BEIJING — As Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar on Wednesday, the neighbors were watching closely.
The trip to the usually closed-off nation, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in more than half a century, boosted suspicions in China that the United States is pursuing a strategy of encirclement to blunt China's rise.
An editorial in the English-language edition of the Global Times, a Chinese state-controlled tabloid with nationalist leanings, said Clinton's appearance in Myanmar "raised speculations that the U.S. is trying to win the former British colony over from China, since it appears that China's neighboring countries have become increasingly pro-U.S."
That worry is sharper in conservative circles than it is among other Chinese observers. But the questions about the purpose of Clinton's visit are being asked by a wide range of China foreign-policy observers.
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"We are quite uncertain what kind of role the U.S. is going to play in Myanmar," said Zhu Feng, an international relations expert at Peking University. "Myanmar will be a test for American policy toward China."
Will the Americans push for reform in Myanmar, a development that China probably wouldn't oppose if such advances were controlled and measured? Or is the U.S. looking to use the nation on China's southern border as a counterweight to Beijing? Perhaps a bit of both?
The concerns underline the complexity of relations between the United States and China. On one hand are economic ties that include more than $457 billion in trade last year and China's holding of more than $1.1 trillion in American Treasury debt.
On the other hand, China's growing might has made the United States and much of the West nervous about Beijing's own long-range plans.
When President Barack Obama said Nov. 18 that Clinton would visit Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, he emphasized "flickers of progress" by President Thein Sein and American desires to "empower a positive transition." He said he'd received support for U.S. engagement from Myanmar's most famous democracy activist, Aung San Suu Kyi.
A senior Obama administration official said later that day, speaking anonymously as a condition of the briefing, that "it's about Burma, not about China."
But the backdrop of Obama's announcement suggested that China and its clout in the region were very much on the minds of those in his administration.
Obama announced Clinton's trip while he was attending a summit in Bali, Indonesia, where American officials pushed for an open discussion of China's ongoing territorial disputes with neighbors in the South China Sea. It was a conversation, with Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in the room, that China had very much wanted to avoid.
A day earlier, Obama had told the Australian Parliament that the United States had made a "deliberate and strategic decision, as a Pacific nation" to take "a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future." While in Australia, he unveiled plans to post a rotating group of 2,500 U.S. Marines in the country.
For many watchers of U.S. policy, Clinton's presence in Myanmar — which is subject to U.S. economic sanctions and is ruled by a military-led government notorious for its human rights abuses — is one more piece of what they see as a recognizable mosaic.
It's "part of the grand policy adjustment by the U.S. to reconsolidate its presence in the Asian Pacific, and its main driving force is concern about China," said Wang Yong, a professor of foreign relations and the director of the Center for International Political Economy at Peking University.
There's little question that Washington has gained diplomatically from ongoing disputes between China and other nations, including Vietnam and the Philippines, about competing claims to the South China Sea. With each flare-up, the United States has grown in importance as a hedge against Chinese dominance.
The same holds true for a disagreement that threatened to boil over last year between China and Japan about ownership of a string of islands in the East China Sea known in China as the Diaoyu and in Japan as the Senkaku.
Also included is South Korea, which drew closer to the U.S. after China failed to condemn its North Korean allies for allegedly torpedoing and sinking a South Korean naval ship last year. China similarly said nothing after North Korea shelled a South Korean island.
Despite those twists and turns, the bottom line for China and the United States for now is the importance of maintaining ties, Zhu said. "Geopolitical competition is not the whole of U.S.-China relations," he said. "It's not the Cold War."
His colleague at Peking University, Wang, agreed, with a caveat. "We have a building confidence in ourselves," he said. With the U.S. economy lagging, and Asia dependent in many ways on China, Wang said, "if the United States has adopted a kind of containment strategy, I think these countries will be very cautious about siding with the United States."
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