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  • Sep 2, 2014
  • Updated: 5:13am
CommentInsight & Opinion

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

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 May, 2014, 7:56pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 May, 2014, 3:30am

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

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This article is now closed to comments

321manu
The current flare-up is rooted in the escalation of various regional disputes over barren rock piles. It is such a long running soap opera that worrying about who "started it" is moot. Among China's core interests, these rock piles represent only the potential for energy and resource development. The simple solution was, is, and always will be multinational cooperative exploration. So the real question is why China isn't going down the path of least resistance and most potential gain.
Moreover, China stands to gain the most in the cooperative exploration model. She has an interest in all of the disputed territories in the South China Sea region, unlike all the other claimants who could only legitimately share in one rock pile each. China would have her fingers in every single rock-pile cookie-jar.
For starters, a deal to rig-up with Vietnam would have neutralized the US, served as a shining model for all other claimants, and showed off CHina's desire for cooperation and fostering mutual trust. But instead of sharing a carrot, China breaks out the stick. "So, what does China really want?" I have no idea, but her actions don't bespeak someone looking for cooperation.
kctony
There are those dumb bureaucrats in HK reminding us the western intervention of China and HK. But they were afraid to mention which countries. True the bad American dudes want to contain China in military term. But making China and HK unstable? What good do the Americans get if China & HK were turned into chaos?
First Apple & Wal-mart will go. The people will vote the president down as inflation, the most feared enemy in the western world, Who has been milking in the HK financial market the past 2 decades?
aplucky1
china has zero friends
they never will
they are a Godless lot with zero morals
they have never had friends/allies in their whole history
john.lone.75
China is a great power and it want respect? Wishful thinking, china is a big power and it is crying a lot and sometime throw in tantrums when it did not get what it wants. Money and blackmailing and under table dealing cannot buy respects, one has to earn it through its mature behaviors, correct manners, be responsible player. No one will respect a big crying bully baby often throw in tantrums like china. One accuse Russia as an expansionist at the same time ignoring china real motive is a typical cunning chinese writer intend. china is an aggressor, illegally occupied Tibet, Qurighar, Inner Mongolia, and Northern part of India are few examples of china expansionist and hegemony ambitions.
lui.thw@gmail.com
US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq
China invaded Tibet
Russia invaded Crimea
This is the behaviour of all big powers, get over it.
aplucky1
you forgot HONG KONG
they are flooding this place with all the refuse that can afford train fare
kctony
Haha. You just made my day.
jiawang@adb.org
This article is a pipe dream. History must run its course.
China wants to be a "great" power, well, it must fight for it.
The US will not invite a rising country to share power.
China will have to fight or accept a second place in the new world order.
I Gandhi
The Anglo-Saxon countries is based on the self given right of domination and conquest. It needs a world which is constantly in conflict in order to peddle military hardware and suppress freedom. Any peoples wanting peace and stability finds themselves constantly under attack with double standards and military alliances. The War on Muslims is but an example. NATO eastward expansion and the military pivot to Asia are other examples.
kctony
When one has power, he conquers. This is human history. Poor Germany and Japan that these Anglo-Saxon countries invaded them in the 1940s. What would the world look like if they hadn't?

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