Deep reasons for China and US to bristle
By Jingdong Yuan
SYDNEY, Australia - China's strong reaction to the United States' call for
multilateral negotiation to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea
fits the rising tide of tensions between Beijing and Washington over a number
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi stated that interventions last month from US
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested the US was ganging with other
countries in the region against China. Chinese analysts also point to US-South
Korea military exercises staged in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan as
nothing but provocation and infringements of China's maritime interests.
However, beneath the public exchanges are deeper reasons for the apparently
more assertive and even confrontational posture being adopted by both sides.
For the United States, China's continuing economic rise and growing military
power pose serious
challenges, both to its predominance in Asia and its ability to deal with
global issues ranging from nuclear non-proliferation to climate change. China's
economy seems on a roll compared with a stagnant US economy, where unemployment
has remained unacceptably high since the financial crisis started two years.
China is on target to replace Japan as the world's second-largest economy.
Military modernization also marches on in China, with a focus on a strategy of
anti-access and area-denial that could seriously threaten the ability of the US
navy to gain access to the region. A report released this week by the Pentagon
points to Chinese procurement and deployment of anti-ship ballistic and cruise
missiles, new submarines and surface ships, and asymmetrical capabilities such
as cyber warfare.
Washington is concerned that growing economic power and military capabilities
could embolden the Chinese leadership to take a more assertive line in foreign
policy and become less willing to cooperate with the international community on
issues where China's role is critical. At the same time, such a role also
requires Beijing to sacrifice its own interests for the larger public good,
including measures to deal with climate change and Iran's nuclear program.
Of particular concern is what Washington views as China's deliberate efforts to
nudge the US out of Asia. Chinese assertions that the South China Sea is one of
its core interests on a par with Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang indicates that
Beijing will no longer tolerate foreign meddling on the territorial issue and
could strong-arm other parties to the dispute into submission on its own terms.
Beijing has equal, if not greater, grievance against US actions that it
considers detrimental to Chinese national interests. The arms sales and
President Barack Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama are viewed as continued
American interference in China's domestic affairs.
On the Taiwan issue in particular, cross-strait relations have been relatively
stable ever since Ma Ying-jeou took the president's office in Taipei. Bilateral
economic ties have continued to deepen and the two sides have recently signed
the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) that would further
facilitate bilateral economic interactions. Cross-strait ties have also been
strengthened through direct flights and educational and tourist agreements.
Under such circumstances, US arms sales touched off strong reactions from
Chinese analysts argue recent US policy shift toward Asia is aimed at
constraining and even containing China's rise and influence in the region. US
calls for resolving maritime disputes in the South China Sea are interpreted by
Beijing as deliberate attempts to draw some of the parties to the dispute into
US embrace for the latter's strategic objective of reasserting dominance after
a period of neglect.
An indication of this strategy is reflected in the apparently warming ties
between Washington and Hanoi. The two countries recently marked their 15th
anniversary of diplomatic relations with joint naval exercises involving the USS
John McCain. What is most significant is the reported US-Vietnam
negotiation of nuclear cooperation where the US would allow Vietnam to enrich
US-South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, which
included the participation of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington
and ostensibly as a show of resolve and response to North Korea's alleged
sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan, are viewed by Chinese
analysts as a provocation. Added to this was the new US-ROK ''2+2'' meeting
held in Seoul that involve the two countries' foreign and defense ministers.
The signal is not lost to Beijing: Washington's efforts to strengthen military
alliances in the region are aimed at reasserting US dominance and containing
Underlying the growing tension and maneuvering is the lack of mutual trust and
in-depth strategic communication. This has left much room for mutual suspicion,
misapprehension, and even miscalculation. And this is taking place at a time
the US is seeking to reassert its primacy in Asia while China is trying to
claim what it views its rightful place in the region. The contest could put
East Asia's stability and prosperity at great peril to the detriment of all
Clearly, managing the changing Sino-US relations is a critical task for leaders
and strategists in both countries. However, differences in perceptions and
interests, coupled with domestic politics in China and the United States, make
such a task at once difficult and imperative. Obama needs to assert himself and
dispel the notion that he is weak and too accommodative on foreign policy
issues. In China, the pending leadership transition also raises the stakes for
contenders to appear firm on issues vital to China's core interests.
It is not inevitable that the two countries are destined on a slippery slide to
confrontation. After all, too much is at stake and neither power can afford
another cold war in the 21st century. However, such recognition is hardly a
guarantee that future conflicts can be avoided. Much depends on whether cooler
heads will prevail in Beijing and Washington even if they have to live with a
strategic rivalry for decades to come.
Dr Jingdong Yuan is an associate professor at the Center for
International Security Studies, the University of Sydney.