China needs patience to achieve a peaceful rise

Mark Valencia says China needs to tone down its bellicose actions and statements to cool tensions in regional relations, and America must help by demonstrating its willingness to share power

Over the past several years, China has been demonstrating its growing power and ambitions. Salient signals include deliberately forcing a US Navy guided missile cruiser on the high seas to change course; locking fire-control radar on a neighbour's vessels and aircraft; unilaterally declaring a new air defence identification zone which overlaps those of its neighbours'; reiterating a fisheries law requiring other nationals to seek permission to fish in its claimed and disputed waters; aggressive naval and coast guard patrols and exercises in the territorial seas of disputed islands and in others' claimed exclusive economic zones; and increasing blue-water naval and air patrols.

It is understandable that China wants to be respected and to play a major if not dominant role in its own region, and eventually the world. But it also wants to avoid war - or a cold war, an intense across-the-board ideational struggle - that would retard, if not thwart, its rapid economic, military and political rise. And therein lies the strategic dilemma.

According to President Xi Jinping , "the argument that strong countries are bound to seek hegemony does not apply to China". "This is not in the DNA of this country, given our long historical and cultural background," he said. "China fully understands that we need a peaceful and stable internal and external environment to develop ourselves. We all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap - destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers … Our aim is to foster a new model of major country relations."

Yet China's actions and statements do not seem to support Xi's claims.

China knows it is not yet ready for an all-out military clash with the US and its allies - even if some sections of its society seem to think it is inevitable. But China's "overreach" - it appears to want too much power too soon - is in danger of producing the opposite of the friendly geopolitical environment it seeks.

Indeed, China's actions are generating fear - not ideational admiration and respect - and pushing ever more countries towards the US for protection, like Japan, Australia and the bulk of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Presumably, this is precisely what China does not want; to be encircled, constrained, even "contained" by unfriendly, even hostile, neighbours aligned against it. This could be disastrous for its continued "rise" in all dimensions.

And this action-reaction dynamic could in turn ignite a vicious cycle driven by mutual fear and knee-jerk nationalism, culminating in what China and the region fear most - war - hot or cold. This worst-case scenario is on the verge of being set in motion. Some say the "tipping point" has already been reached. Indeed, long-term strategic government planners are preparing for the worst.

But this future is not written in stone, although thinking it is can make it so. China should and probably will moderate its aggressive conduct - including its official bellicose rhetoric that seems to hark back to another era, when China was righteously and rightfully shaking off its humiliating colonial shackles.

But the US has to help it moderate its stance by accommodating to some degree its international interests and aspirations; in short, by sharing power. When, on what issues, how, and how much are challenges for US government deep thinkers to ponder and negotiate with China.

For its part, China needs to prove by its actions that it is not seeking military conflict. This strategic "flexibility" would help realise the "new" type of major country relationship proposed by Xi at his Sunnylands summit with US President Barack Obama in June last year.

The seas and airspace bordering China are the most dangerous arenas right now for miscalculation or unintended incidents that could spark wider conflict. An agreement by China on codes of conduct for the South and East China seas could get the ball rolling in the right direction. Of course, implementation of the codes may be rocky but such an agreement would demonstrate that China is genuinely trying to avoid the worst scenario.

Another positive gesture would be a clarification that its claim in the South China Sea is to the islands and exclusive economic zones generated by them. Refraining from what is increasingly seen as "gunboat diplomacy" by its neighbours would also help calm the political environment.

The US might reciprocate by reducing or eliminating its "close-in" surveillance and probes of China's military, not overly hyping and displaying its military presence in the region, and reducing or ceasing leading-edge arms sales to Taiwan.

None of this is to say that China should not and cannot aspire to global influence and respect. Nor is it to suggest that only China is to blame for the deteriorating political environment in Asia. Indeed, there is plenty of blame to go around. It simply suggests that, to attain its goals, it should be more patient. As Deng Xiaoping advised, it should bide its time.

But it does take two to tango. The US has to deeply understand the situation and be flexible and accommodating. Indeed, for the sake of the region and the world, both need to better manage their relations with each other.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Virtue of patience