Sino-US relations

A strategic reset for Sino-US relations

Lanxin Xiang says Asia and the Pacific will come to rue the lack of a regional security model that builds Sino-US trust, and now's the time to mull all options - including that of joint sovereignty

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 August, 2012, 9:17pm

Hugh White, a leading foreign affairs expert in Australia, has made a daring proposal for establishing a Sino-US condominium - that is, joint sovereignty of a territory - of some sort in Asia and the Pacific. His argument is both old and new.

On the one hand, it is clearly based on a realpolitik concept derived from traditional theories on international relations. On the other, it reflects the obvious power shift that is taking place in the region. The existing hegemon in the region is still the United States, but its power and influence have declined in recent years, after having squandered its resources and prestige on a "war on terror", to the extent that its strategic interest has to be sustained by an old-fashioned alliance system. Meanwhile, China's rise is too fast and unpredictable; the US has enormous difficulties just grasping this reality, not to mention effectively dealing with it.

Washington and Beijing are escalating their diplomatic competition all over the world, from the South China Sea to Latin America and the African continent. They are also giving priority to military preparedness, so there is hardly any meeting of the minds. Thus, a fresh view from a third party might be useful.

White suggests that the Americans are heading in a wrong direction by reviving a cold-war-style military alliance against a potential challenger. A corrective policy should be to forge a kind of Sino-US condominium, which has the advantage of offering a platform for the two to manage their differences and avoid conflict.

At first glance, White's proposal may sound harsh, as it harks back to the old days of European power politics in a struggle for mastery. But his proposal may indeed provide a way to avert a potentially disastrous military confrontation now brewing in the region.

Neither the US nor China seems to be able to find a new path to "reset" their rapidly deteriorating strategic relationship. Continuing on an old track makes no sense any more. The bilateral strategic and economic dialogue never really touches upon the question of how to build true strategic trust. Military-to-military communication is so poor between Washington and Beijing that any misreading of the other's mind during a crisis may well escalate into hostilities.

Even Henry Kissinger, the ever-optimistic thinker of the Sino-US relationship, has turned sour lately. Kissinger envisioned the two forming a "Pacific community", a kind of a US-China condominium at a global, not just regional, level. Now that this possibility has become remote, he seems to be recognising the potential for a conflict.

Instead of forging active global co-operation between Washington and Beijing, we now have a regionalised and militarised local competition at all levels - diplomatic, political and strategic. Nationalism is on the rise in both countries. The nasty row over a Chinese Olympic swimmer is just the tip of the iceberg of mutual resentment.

What we are witnessing is an example of the blind leading the blind: they are not aware of the danger of falling into an abyss, for if the political elite in both countries begin to adopt the view that a contest for supremacy between China and the United States is inevitable, Asia and the Pacific region is destined to head towards another cold war, one which no one can be sure will not turn hot in the future.

At the same time, China is also struggling to understand the meaning and the impact of its own rapid rise, making the inevitable trials and errors on the way towards world-power status.

The regional future is uncertain and unpredictable and, for the first time since 1945, the complacency about security and prosperity is put in doubt. In this context, White's proposal, though reflecting a distinctive Australian view, may not be as outmoded and naïve as it appears. It could serve as a wake-up call for leaders not only in America and China, but also in other regional capitals. It is time for serious discussions on how to avoid conflict.

Many would argue that such an approach would sacrifice the interests of small countries. But small players in the region have always faced a terrible dilemma: whether or not the elephants are fighting, the grass remains the vulnerable party in the relationship. The solution that served small countries in the past was a cold but not hot war. This is why many regional players welcomed the US "return to Asia". But the problem remains: what if a cold war turns hot? This will serve no one's interest.

The Asia-Pacific region has most of the strategic hot spots in the world, yet regional leaders have long been complacent and no serious collective security system has been attempted. Many players in the region had in the past hitched a free ride on the US-led cold war system towards prosperity, but this happy experience can no longer be repeated.

Lanxin Xiang is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva