Home / China / View

Recalibrating China-US relations

By Zhao Minghao | China Daily | Updated: 2014-11-13 08:02

Applying some strategic ambiguity in the South China Sea would be useful to ensure the stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific

Even though President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Barack Obama held summit talks on Tuesday and Wednesday following the 2014 APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, the Sino-US relationship still has uncertainties.

At least until this week, the outlook for a new type of major-country relationship seems to have darkened 18 months after their summit in Sunnylands, California, and there are growing concerns that China and the United States might descend from competition to rivalry. The Asia-Pacific would doubtlessly be the main arena should that be the case.

The US is increasingly worried about China's long-term policy intentions as it seems to be taking a harder line on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea. As China has also refused the proposal by US Secretary of State John Kerry to "freeze" these disputes, the US also feels its elevated role as "arbiter" is being challenged.

In addition, at the 2014 Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, held in Shanghai in May, Xi raised a new concept of Asian security advocating that "Asian people be responsible for Asian affairs". Although he expressed that the region would welcome positive contributions from other parties, the move was widely interpreted by US strategists as trying to "edge" the US out of Asia and build a regional order without Washington.

Further, 21 economies in the Asia-Pacific have signed up as founder members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which was initiated by China. A Silk Road Fund of $40 billion has also been set up by Beijing, which offers new channels for the country to use its huge foreign currency reserve other than purchasing US debts. As China's contribution rate to the Asia-Pacific economy exceeds 60 percent, the huge economic potential is turning into actual influence.

As a result, the US, which used to claim that it expects China to shoulder more global responsibilities, now fears China is starting to shoulder too much in the Asia-Pacific. In an article in the New York Times, Wesley Clark, a retired four-star general and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, said that US' constructive engagement policy toward China had failed and it is time to "get real about China".

If he means by that an armed conflict between China and the US, it would be a disaster beyond imagination. That is also essentially why the two agreed to try to forge a new type of major-country relationship to manage their competitive interdependence and prevent a crisis from spiraling out of control.

But it is not all doom and gloom, there is good news about their relations, too, as it shows they have grown more mature. Even though senior military officers from the two countries pointed the finger at one another at the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue, the Chinese navy attended the 2014 RIMPAC multinational maritime exercise at the US' invitation. Negotiations about regulations on military actions in the ocean and the air are also going on, as a reaction to the close encounters that have occurred.

Of course, China is not so naive as to imagine the US' alliances in the Asia-Pacific will disappear overnight, but it is justified in believing these alliances increase regional tensions and might possibly lead to an arms race in the long run. The major Asia-Pacific countries need to propel establishing one or more inclusive, open, effective and balanced regional security mechanisms and that should be a common goal of China and the US.

In the 1970s, it was strategic ambiguity that enabled China and the US to temporarily transcend divergences over China's Taiwan, and successfully brought about a thaw in the bilateral relations. They could introduce similar strategic ambiguity today in the territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea.

The US should realize that China's current objective is not to take back its territory, but rather to suspend the disputes and make sure the other claimants do not challenge it.

It is irreversible that China will play a more important role in the Asia-Pacific, but that does not mean hegemony. President Xi said that the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will learn from the best practices of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, which shows his sincerity and goodwill, and Obama can echo that goodwill with a deeper understanding of China's new approaches to the Asia-Pacific.

The author is a research fellow at the Beijing-based Charhar Institute and an adjunct fellow with the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University.


Editor's picks
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349