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As China flexes its muscles, America looks for the right response

China has been expanding its military footprint in the South China Sea, to the chagrin of leaders in the U.S. The move to construct artificial islands there and expand its military presence has elicited a range of responses from President Obama, his administration and members of Congress.

As China grows in power, economically and militarily, it is "beginning to spread its wings and to bear its fangs a bit," said CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate. Its latest actions, he said, are the manifestation of what many experts have said is an inevitable competition between China and the U.S.

While that competition has been long foreseen, and territory disputes in the South China Sea have gone on for decades, the administration until recently took a "more fuzzy and less disciplined approach" to the subject, noted Ken Lieberthal, an expert in U.S.-China relations at the Brookings Institution.

Now, the administration has a clear message for China and all other nations with claims in the South China Sea: stop building up military capacity on whatever land you claim there. Other nations have built outposts there, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said last week. "Yet, one country has gone much farther and much faster than anyone other, and that's China," he said. Carter also said the U.S. will fly aircraft and sail Navy vessels anywhere in the region that's permitted under international law.

President Obama has also criticized China's actions, though less forcefully so than Carter.

"The truth is, is that China is going to be successful -- it's big, it's powerful, its people are talented and they work hard, and it may be that some of their claims are legitimate," Mr. Obama said at the White House Monday. "But they shouldn't just try to establish that based on throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way. If in fact their claims are legitimate, people will recognize them."

China's naval expansion raising tension with U.S.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, wants the administration to take more specific actions to deter China's aggression in the South China Sea.

Two weeks ago, McCain and Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the committee, sent Carter a letter, saying that China should not have been invited to participate in the 2016 Rim of the Pacific military exercise in Hawaii.

"Given China's behavior in the past year alone, including its disregard for the interests of our allies, international law, and established norms, we do not believe Beijing should have been invited to this prestigious U.S.-led military exercise in 2016," the senators wrote. "China appears more intent on waging a maritime sovereignty competition and bullying its neighbors than contributing in a substantive manner to regional peace."

Zarate endorsed the free discussion, led by the president, over the United States' response to China.

"I think there is something healthy about an open discussion about how we're going to treat China because in many ways China is an ally and needs to be," he said, noting China is a chief trading partner for the U.S.

At the same time, he said, "they're a competitor. You see this in... the South China Sea, for example, or in other parts of the world where they're competing for interest and reach in the developing world."

Finally, Zarate said, "in some ways an enemy. You look at what they've done in the cyber domain -- their cyber-economic espionage has been devastating to research and development in the U.S. -- so this is a complicated relationship in a complicated time with China rising."

When it comes to the South China Sea, Lieberthal said the administration is now on the right track. By calling on China to clearly define the so-called nine-dashed line and clarify its territorial claims within that boundary, the U.S. can help reduce the notion that China is a threat to its neighbors, Lieberthal said. The administration is also taking the appropriate steps by increasing the maritime awareness capabilities of other countries in the area, he said, "giving them the capacity to know what is going on in the waters near their shore."

Beyond that, it's unclear whether China will be more of a "problem solver" or a "problem maker" for the U.S., Zarate said, noting its proximity to volatile areas like Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea.

"We're still grappling with what is the nature of this relationship," he said.

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