Here's the scenario: A southern Japanese island is under attack and American forces are coming to the rescue.
The potential enemy isn't identified on the maps flashing across computer screens, but the elephant in the room is obvious: It's "the big country to the west," says one U.S. military official.
In keeping with the adage of hoping for the best while preparing for the worst, the U.S. and its Asian allies are boosting their defenses, even after American and Chinese leaders talked up the need for closer ties in two high-profile visits this month.
In Washington, Chinese leader Hu Jintao received a pomp-filled welcome usually reserved for close allies. Just before, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was given similar treatment in Beijing, even getting a look inside China's nuclear warfare headquarters.
But largely outside public view, jockeying between the U.S. and China for strategic advantage in the Pacific is intensifying.
The U.S. has long been the dominant military power in the region, protecting Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and keeping vital shipping lanes open for trade. China is now emerging as a rival, sending its ships farther out to sea as its military strength grows.
An unusual flurry of activity in the past two months reflects the concern over China's rise:
_ As Gates began his tour, an American aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, and its battle group were taking part in exercises in the East China Sea, where a diplomatic skirmish broke out last fall between Tokyo and Beijing over contested islands.
_ The exercises followed a major joint operation with Japan in December _ with the USS George Washington carrier group and an amphibious assault ship _ to simulate reclaiming a southwestern island and bottling up the Chinese navy.
_ As Hu concluded his trip, Japan and the U.S. began the ongoing "Yama Sakura" exercises, a mock-up deployment to repel a full-scale invasion of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. They end Feb. 3.
U.S. military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, confirmed the general outlines of the two naval exercises.
The training serves two purposes, said Toshi Yoshihara, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. "First, it makes sense for the alliance to send a deterrent signal to China. Second, it is prudent for Washington to reassure Tokyo."
American officials studiously avoid calling China a threat and stress the importance of the recent political overtures. They say the Kyushu exercises are not directed at any particular adversary.
"It's like a football scrimmage," Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the commander of the U.S. Army in the Pacific, said at the headquarters for the Kyushu exercises. "Somebody's got to wear the red shirts."
But Aurelia George Mulgan, a Japan specialist at the Australian Defense Force Academy at the University of New South Wales, said the recent U.S-Japan activity "smacks of a new containment policy."
"It was designed to send a strong message to China that China, and particularly its military, are not going to have it all their own way in this region, and that the more aggressive they get, the stronger the response from Japan and the U.S.," she said.
China says it's not a threat, but its diplomatic and military stance has became increasingly muscular, most notably at sea. It is developing a stealth fighter jet and an advanced missile that could hold an aircraft carrier battle group at bay. It also hopes to deploy its first aircraft carriers over the next decade.
Its naval vessels are venturing more frequently into sea lanes around southern Japan. A flotilla of 10 warships, including advanced submarines and destroyers, passed through the Miyako Strait last April in the biggest transit of its kind to date. Experts saw it as an attempt by China to test Japan and demonstrate its open water capabilities.
Japan has said it will boost its monitoring of Chinese forces and increase its submarine fleet. It is also deepening defense ties with not only the United States but also South Korea, Australia and India.
With its swelling trade, China is understandably concerned that it needs to protect its shipping lanes, said Eric Wertheim, editor of the Annapolis, Maryland-based U.S. Naval Institute's Guide to Combat Fleets of the World.
But he also expressed worries about the Chinese military's thinking.
"The Chinese military appears insecure and has a bit of an inferiority complex right now. China appears to have the strong perception that they have been bullied in the past and now that they are strong they can finally get their payback," he said in an e-mail. "Many in China seem very ready to pick fights over perceived slights."