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Could it be that just when the world's eyes are focused on Jerusalem and Tehran - when everyone is wondering who will blink first, pull the trigger first, push the button, sow death and destruction, send oil prices soaring and drag the entire world into a maelstrom with apocalyptic implications - the evil will break forth from another direction entirely?

In his new book "The China Choice," Hugh White, a former senior Australian defense official, warns that there is a clear and significant danger of a catastrophic conflict breaking out in the South China Sea. That assessment is shared by research institutes and observers who say the likelihood of a flare-up between China and its neighbors and the United States, is steadily increasing.

Against this background a multinational maritime exercise involving 40 warships, six submarines, 200 planes and 25,000 personnel from 22 countries was held recently off the Hawaiian coast. The Rim of the Pacific Exercise takes place every two years, but in light of the tension in the South China Sea this year's RIMPAC has taken on a special significance.

For years six countries - China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - have claimed ownership of parts of this sea. China claims 80 percent of it. In recent months it has increased its fleet of patrol boats, set up a reconnaissance unit ready for immediate action and intensified its bellicose claims of sovereignty over the sea. It has clashed with the Philippines and Vietnam, set up an administrative center on one of the islands and deployed a garrison there, through which it intends to dominate the region.

When the United States voiced displeasure over these steps, America's deputy chief of mission was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. Granted, the Chinese didn't sit him on a low stool. But they did get across their message, which was also disseminated via the People's Daily: "We are entirely entitled to shout at the United States, 'Shut up.'"

This muscle flexing, and its timing, is attributed to three main causes: hunger for the seabed's potential energy sources, which would ensure continued growth for the Chinese giant; the tension in Beijing over expected changes in the country's senior civilian and military leadership when the Communist Party's national congress opens in October; and above all, the view that conditions are now ripe for positioning China as the dominant power in the region. The Americans have announced a new doctrine whose centerpiece is the relocation of forces from Europe to Asia? We'll show them what power is on the ground. The Americans have regained their dominance on the Olympic medal chart? The achievements of our new submarines at sea will dwarf those of Michael Phelps in the pool.

The United States must "recognize that there has been ... a shift in the strategic balance," former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating wrote in an opinion piece in The Australian this week. He sought to shake the perception that Australia has no choice but to support American supremacy in Asia in the face of the threat of Chinese hegemony. Australia must recognize "China's legitimacy, its prerogatives as a great power," Keating wrote, adding that it must abandon "the notion that only democratic governments are legitimate."

This debate is naturally not foreign to Israel, which has also recently strengthened its military ties with China: This week, for the first time, Haifa is hosting three missile boats from the Chinese fleet. But it must be hoped that Israel hasn't forgotten the lessons of the "Phalcon affair," which caused "the worst crisis in Israeli-American history" in 2000. Washington blocked a huge deal to sell Phalcon spy planes to China, and Israel got an expensive lesson in the limits of its power and in its dependence on the United States. This dependence remains absolute. Iran's nuclear program - and China's vehement opposition to attacking it - may well constitute the clearest proof of this.