Only weeks after the recent Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing suggested a US-China relationship moving forward, there are growing fears among US experts and, if a recent Pew poll of Asian opinion is accurate, among many in Asia, that the US and China may be on a collision course.
It is the topic of endless Washington think tank meetings: What are China’s intentions? There are concerns that China’s assertive maritime behavior seeks to subtly change the status quo through small, incremental steps, and in the process, erode US credibility in the region.
Part of the problem is conflicting narratives. Beijing argues it is only responding to provocations by Japan, Vietnam, and Philippines. But deploying a $1 billion deep sea oil drilling rig in disputed territorial waters is not perceived as being reactive.
Many in the US and Asia welcome China’s growing economic role, but they fear that Beijing is acting like a classic rising power in regard to its foreign policy, disrupting the status quo.
In the recent Pew poll, large majorities in eight of 11 Asian nations surveyed were worried that China’s actions in the South China Sea could lead to military conflict.
China argues it is only defending its “core interests” and the US fails to respect them. But many in the US wonder if China grasps US “core interests.”
Unlike China, the US does not emphasize sovereignty and territoriality. Rather, for the US, core interests in the Pacific are fundamentally about unimpeded access, commercial, maritime and in the other global commons of air, space, and cyberspace. This is not well understood in China. These interests are why the US “rebalance” to Asia will continue, despite crises in Ukraine and the Middle East.
Many US Asia experts were puzzled when Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia in May criticizing “outdated thinking from the Cold War” and called for “a new regional security cooperation architecture,” essentially, Asia for Asians.
Where does that leave the US? Few in Asia wish to see the US security role as balancer disappear.
At the same time, all expect that China will have a larger geopolitical footprint in Asia.
If Beijing wants the US to take seriously the hope of developing a “new type of major power relationship,” the challenge is how to accommodate both Washington’s and Beijing’s core interests in the Western Pacific. That will require reaching a balance of interests that both nations can live with.
The problem is that current trends do not seem to be moving in that direction. What is the point of the air and naval head-butting between China and Japan in the East China Sea, or with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea? Where does it lead? Does anyone win?
Like a GPS device looking at ways to avoid a traffic jam, it might be wise for China to recalculate. With its hosting of the APEC meeting this fall approaching, China can use the spotlight restore its statesman-like image.
A cooling off period in regard to territorial disputes might be useful. The recent meetings of the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit have heard proposals for a freeze on activities in the South China Sea. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been desperately trying to restore a constructive dialogue with China.
For Sino-US ties, a step forward might be active dialogue on prioritizing strategic issues relating to the global commons. Both the US and China need open areas, such as online and in space, for their economies and militaries to function. Discussing codes of conduct makes sense.
These moves would all be, in effect, “crossing the river by feeling for stones,” and perhaps a path to a new type of major power relationship.