US push won't turn into shoving match

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 November, 2011, 12:00am


A rapid turn of events over the past few weeks has seen Washington make a high-profile and aggressive return to re-assert its leadership in the Asia-Pacific region, with Beijing clearly on the defensive on issues ranging from trade to the South China Sea disputes.

This has once again reignited concerns that Sino-US ties are heading for more volatile waters as a flustered Beijing could be forced to reassess its diplomatic priorities and adopt more confrontational policies.

So far, Beijing's public reactions have been largely mild, as mainland analysts and officials outwardly put on a brave face and privately fume about Washington's stepped-up efforts to 'contain' China.

But in reality, Beijing is unlikely to overreact by making any major policy change in its diplomacy towards the US or its Asia-Pacific neighbours, despite Washington's increasingly aggressive stance.

The overseas media has portrayed Washington's pushback against Chinese influence in the region as a big setback for Beijing and has suggested mainland leaders were rattled by the flurry of US initiatives.

Even mainland analysts admitted Beijing was caught off guard by the recent US moves, including Barack Obama's confrontational approach to China by raising territorial disputes in the South China Sea at the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia.

But the mainland leadership should have seen this coming a long time ago. Washington has made no secret of its foreign policy shift to Asia from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as the Obama administration sees the region as pivotal in its plan to revive the American economy through exports and job creation.

Some analysts have blamed China's assertiveness in the region for giving Washington an opening to stage a strong comeback, but the truth is Washington, the only superpower left in the world, does not need any good excuse or timing to lay down markers for its economic and political interests.

And Beijing knows this too well, as top mainland leaders, including President Hu Jintao , have said all along Beijing welcomes Washington playing an active and constructive role in the Asia-Pacific region.

As the US enters its presidential election cycle and China undertakes its top leadership changes next year, Chinese officials are also aware of the danger of souring bilateral ties being hijacked for domestic politics. With China's swift economic rise and a declining US economy, both the Republicans and Democrats are already taking a tough stance on China by denouncing its trade practices and blaming the mainland for lost American jobs.

Earlier this month, Cui Tiankai , a deputy foreign minister, clearly reflected the central government's thinking by noting at a forum in Beijing that special attention should be made to avoid having China-related issues politicised in the US presidential election, and to prevent Sino-US ties from becoming a 'hostage' of American domestic politics.

If history can be any guide, Sino-US ties always tend to be volatile when the US is bracing for its presidential election. But history has also shown that the elements underpinning close ties between Beijing and Washington have not changed. Despite the rhetoric and posturing, both countries must work together to solve outstanding issues, be they about trade, the yuan or South China Sea disputes.