The unprecedented and solemn warning that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered to Beijing last week over its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea needs to be considered within three separate contexts. This is because, as Harvard Professor (and former assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration) Joseph Nye maintains, relations between great powers are like a game of chess in three dimensions. There is the military equation, the economic equation and the separate but related dimension of cultural influence. Nye calls it "soft power," the ability of a great power not to force other countries to do its will but to get them "to want what you want."
So when Clinton infuriated Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the ASEAN regional forum last week by asserting that the resolution of disputes over the South China Sea to be in the United States' "national interest" all three equations came into play.