Admiral Sun Jianguo chats with US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter during the ministerial luncheon at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Photo: AFP

Economic interdependence underpins peace between China and the US

Dingding Chen says while this acts as a strong deterrent to an outbreak of hostilities, the two powers must also restrain themselves militarily and try to establish common ground

There is little doubt now that a "war of words" is going on between China and the US over the South China Sea, evidenced by pointed exchanges between US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo at the just concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

Carter openly criticised China's ongoing efforts to turn submerged reefs and rocks into artificial islands with military functions, calling them a threat to regional stability and peace. Chinese delegates returned the favour by challenging Carter on how US surveillance flights contributed to regional peace and stability, and Admiral Sun hinted at a possible air defence identification zone if China was threatened.

These heated exchanges reflect an increasingly uneasy picture of US-China relations, which, in the eyes of many pundits, is heading towards confrontation.

One can certainly find a fair amount of evidence from the US side. Two recent reports from major think tanks in the US call for a tougher approach to China, with one urging a new type of containment and another advocating a "peaceful evolution" approach to China.

The Obama administration has also increased its military presence by flying over China's artificial islands in the South China Sea, aiming to demonstrate the US resolve to defend its freedom of navigation anywhere in the world.

This gradual convergence of words and actions does not bode well. More importantly, the US side has promised that more confrontational measures will follow soon. China has vowed not to yield one bit to US pressure.

There is also plenty of evidence that suggests China is already taking steps to redesign a new global order, if not entirely overthrow the old one. In the eyes of many US policymakers and scholars, a rising China is now a bit arrogant and a bit too strident in its rhetoric and actions. Whatever China's real intentions, it walks and talks like a revisionist power. China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative, for example, very much sounds like an expansionist plan to increase its geostrategic influence. Thus, something must be done to stop China's expansion before it is too late.

If these trends are allowed to develop naturally, then very soon we will witness a military conflict between the two. How can we avoid it? Despite the grave challenges, there is still hope for the two to peacefully co-exist in the South China Sea, and in Asia more broadly.

For one thing, the high level of economic interdependence is a major reason why things have remained under control. Both China and the US would suffer hugely from a serious military conflict. Alongside nuclear weapons, economic interdependence also acts as a deterrent, given the potential for "mutually assured destruction" in a breakdown of ties.

More importantly, there are many other areas where cooperation is necessary. Think climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, terrorism and cybersecurity, to name just a few. Today's Sino-US relations are not just bilateral relations; it is a global relationship.

Still, to avoid conflict or war, both need to make great efforts to restrain themselves, particularly in military affairs. The US should seriously reconsider what hegemony or dominance means in Asia; China should recognise its own domestic problems and limits.

If both can work out a new narrative that is not based on a power struggle, but instead on shared interests and influence, then there is a bright picture ahead for a peaceful and stable Asia that would benefit not only China and the US, but the whole world.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Economic interdependence underpins US-China peace