Beijing responded to the visa uproar by firing missiles near a small Taiwan-controlled island and moving some military forces up to the mainland coast facing the island. However, there was never any danger that China would actually attack Taiwan. Even if it wanted to, it didn't have the means to do so.
Instead of letting things cool off, however, the Clinton administration escalated the conflict and sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region, the USS Nimitz and USS Independence. The Nimitz and its escorts sailed through the Taiwan Straits between the island and the mainland, and there was nothing that China could do about it.
The carriers deeply alarmed Beijing, because the regions just north of Taiwan in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea were the jumping off points for 19th and 20th century invasions by western colonialists and the Japanese.
The Straits crisis led to a radical remaking of China's military, which had long relied on massive land forces. Instead, China adopted a strategy called "Area Denial" that would allow Beijing to control the waters surrounding its coast, in particular the East and South China seas. That not only required retooling of its armed forces -- from land armies to naval and air power -- it required a ring of bases that would keep potential enemies at arm's length and also allow Chinese submarines to enter the Pacific and Indian oceans undetected.
Reaching from Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula in the north to the Malay Peninsula in the south, this so-called "first island chain" is Beijing's primary defense line.
China is particularly vulnerable to a naval blockade. Some 80 percent of its energy supplies traverse the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, moving through narrow choke points like the Malacca Straits between Indonesia and Malaysia, the Bab al Mandab Straits controlling the Red Sea, and the Straits of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf.
All of those passages are controlled by the U.S. or countries like India and Indonesia with close ties to Washington.
In 2013, China claimed it had historic rights to the region and issued its now famous "nine-dash line" map that embraced the Paracels and Spratly island chains -- and 85 percent of the South China Sea. It was this nine-dash line that the Hague tribunal rejected, because it found no historical basis for China's claim, and because there were overlapping assertions by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.
There are, of course, economic considerations as well. The region is rich in oil, gas and fish, but the primary concern for China is security. The Chinese haven't interfered with commercial ship traffic in the territory they claim, although they've applied on-again, off-again restrictions on fishing and energy explorations. China initially prevented Filipino fishermen from exploiting some reefs, and then allowed it. It's been more aggressive with Vietnam in the Paracels.
Stirring the Pot
Rather than trying to assuage China's paranoia, the U.S. made things worse by adopting a military strategy to checkmate "Area Denial."
Called "Air/Sea Battle" -- later renamed "Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons" -- Air/Sea Battle envisions attacking China's navy, air force, radar facilities, and command centers with air and naval power. Missiles would be used to take out targets deep into Chinese territory.
China's recent seizure of a U.S. underwater drone off the Philippines is part of an ongoing chess game in the region. The drone was almost certainly mapping sea floor bottoms and collecting data that would allow the U.S. to track Chinese submarines, including those armed with nuclear missiles. While the heist was a provocative thing to do -- it was seized right under the nose of an unarmed U.S. Navy ship -- it's a reflection of how nervous the Chinese are about their vulnerability to Air/Sea Battle.
China's leaders "have good reason to worry about this emerging U.S. naval strategy [use of undersea drones] against China in East Asia," Li Mingjiang, a China expert at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told the Financial Times. "If this strategy becomes reality, it could be quite detrimental to China's national security."
Washington charges that the Chinese are playing the bully with small countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, and there is some truth to that charge. China has been throwing its weight around with several nations in Southeast Asia. But it also true that the Chinese have a lot of evidence that the Americans are gunning for them.
The U.S. has some 400 military bases surrounding China and is deploying anti-ballistic missiles in South Korea and Japan, ostensibly to guard against North Korean nuclear weapons. But the interceptors could also down Chinese missiles, posing a threat to Beijing's nuclear deterrence.