China and the US must avert conflict in the future by building trust now
Andrew Leung says an understanding of China's desire for respect but not dominance opens the way to cooperation with America, a basis for peace in the South China Sea and beyond
The Southeast Asian community used to live in relative peace. China signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2003, and the Asean-China Free Trade Area was launched in 2010. Similarly, China was Japan's largest trading partner while historical grievances were wisely left for future generations to resolve.
Now, the waters of the East and South China seas have become more turbulent. America's closer military ties with China's neighbours are emboldening rival territorial claims. Long-standing disputes kept under wraps have flared up. Nationalism is rising on all sides. A remilitarised yet unrepentant Japan is about to take shape.
Together with a Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative that now excludes China, America's pivot, or "rebalancing", to Asia is liable to be construed by China as nothing less than a containment and encirclement strategy to maintain hegemony.
For its part, China's growing assertiveness has put paid to oft-repeated intentions of "peaceful development". An air defence identification zone has been imposed over islands disputed with Japan. Built-up garrisons and apparent steps to construct an airstrip have been seen in the Spratly/Nansha islands under dispute with the Philippines. These manoeuvres may well presage another Chinese air defence zone, in the South China Sea.
The erection of a Chinese oil rig near the Paracel/Xisha islands under dispute with Vietnam is adding fuel to the fire.
To America, China appears to be testing the limits of its regional influence. It is no surprise that President Barack Obama hastened to visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines last month to reassure key Asian allies. Meanwhile, the US is increasingly alarmed by China's rapid military development.
A vicious circle of America-China mistrust and rivalry seems to be in place, typical of the classical security dilemma that calls to mind the warning by Professor Graham Allison, of the Harvard Kennedy School, of a "Thucydides Trap" ensnaring a global superpower and its rising challenger, harking back to the catastrophic Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens in the 5th century BC, and the rivalry between Britain and Germany at the end of the 19th century.
Foreseeing this looming trap, President Xi Jinping raised the concept of "great power relations" with Obama at a historic tête-à-tête at Sunnylands last year. Both envisage a mutually fruitful relationship embodying cooperation, despite their differences. Nevertheless, rhetoric aside, relations between the two leave a lot to be desired.
In great power relations, the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu stressed that victory lies in understanding one's opponent as much as oneself. So, what does China really want?
Beneath China's much-touted "five principles of peaceful coexistence" lies a deep-seated national psyche that yearns for national dignity and renaissance as a well-off nation and a world power, captured in Xi's China Dream. In particular, China desires to be treated on equal terms as a great power.
However, capability aside, none of this implies a desire for hegemony. Indeed, China would overturn at its peril a world order shaped and guaranteed by the West, particularly the US, from which it has benefited immensely and will continue to do so. Nevertheless, territorial integrity, regime stability, energy and resource security, and opportunities for continued economic development, remain "core interests" which China will guard with all its might.
In an increasingly interdependent world, China has successfully embedded itself at the centre of the global economic order. As the world's largest trader , China now does business with 126 countries, compared with 76 for the US. There are more currencies moving in tandem with the renminbi than with the dollar. Six of the top eight busiest container ports are in China, including Hong Kong. So China's rise can only be accommodated rather than reversed.
There is also a Russian angle. As Moscow is hit by Western sanctions over Ukraine, there are signs that it is leaning towards Beijing. The massive energy deal is a case in point. If the US could build greater rapport with China, it could at least give it an incentive not to form too close an alliance with an expansionist Russia.
True, the economies of America and China are intertwined and China is America's greatest creditor. There are also more military exchanges, including the latest visit of the People's Liberation Army chief of general staff to the Pentagon. However, if growing regional tensions are to be eased, much more needs to be done to build strategic trust.
One possible means is through joint operations and ventures in addressing global or regional issues of common interest. An example is cleaner energies, including smart-grid technologies and ecologically sound techniques to better exploit rich shale gas reserves in both countries. Another opportunity is American know-how to help China build more eco-friendly cities.
A further possibility is joint naval patrols on the high seas to counter maritime piracy, terrorism and other criminal activities. Such efforts would send a positive signal that both countries wish to maintain regional stability.
As Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew told The Atlantic in a recent interview, "competition is inevitable between China and the US, but conflict is not".
Confrontation breeds conflict while cooperation begets mutual trust. More cooperative ventures between the two global powers are perhaps the key to avert sleepwalking into the Thucydides Trap.
Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist based in Hong Kong