Recently, it would appear to the casual observer that the U.S.-China relationship has a hit a rough patch. Both countries are repeatedly hitting heads on a variety of issues ranging from cyber warfare to land disputes. Some contend that relations have soured as a result of the actions of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the communist party. Others say that it is due to increasing U.S. activity in East Asia. Whatever the case, the U.S. and China are the leading powers in the world and ensuring stable relations between them is a must to preserve peace in the international order. Despite the high degree of interdependence, there is still the potential for conflict. With that in mind, both countries should pursue this relationship with the clear understanding of how important it is and how much can go wrong.
U.S.-China – Current Relations
Ties between both countries are increasing though it would seem that levels of strain are increasing as well. The U.S. “Asia Pivot” which is meant to address the growing importance of Asia in the world and China’s rise is largely seen in Beijing as an attempt by the U.S. to contain China and to develop alliances with regional powers that are in dispute with China. On the other hand, commentators in the west say the pivot is not enough and as of now presents no threat to China. Regardless, it is clear that officials in Washington and Beijing view each other with suspicion. The U.S. does not want to see China imposing its will in the region nor does China want the U.S. interfering in a region that is not its own.
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One source of concern in China about U.S. involvement in the region is the development of relations the U.S. is conducting with countries that are on China’s periphery. In many instances, these same countries are engaged in disputes with China such as Vietnam. In one example, the U.S. is developing its relations with its former enemy, Vietnam while China watches cautiously and with mistrust. Just this past week, Vietnam General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong visited Washington D.C. and met with President Obama. China and Vietnam have clashed over disputes in the South China Sea, particularly the Paracel Islands. The highly publicized incident involving a Chinese oil rig and the standoff between both sides in Vietnam-claimed waters in mid-2014 revealed how deep distrust and anxiety is between both countries.
Meanwhile Washington is cautiously watching the incredible buildup of the Chinese military, a buildup which seems to be at odds with China’s declared “Peaceful Rise.” Truth be told, that was the official policy of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao; is it still today? The Chinese military is growing more aggressive in its actions in the South China Sea while expanding its reach elsewhere such as in the Indian Ocean. China’s island building projects in the South China Sea over the past two years have been seen as an aggressive move to dominate the region and counter weaker neighbors who will not be able to defend their claims. This has been a high source of tensions in the relationship with the U.S. for a variety of reasons including the fact that the Philippines are a claimant nation. The Philippines and the U.S. share a mutual defense treaty and Washington does not want Beijing to come into conflict with Manila as the U.S. will inevitably be drawn in.
Additionally there are growing cyber issues. Revelations of a major hack at OPM in the U.S. that has seen files on millions of American citizens compromised in what is widely believed in the U.S. to be the result of Chinese hackers. This would not be the first time that China has been implicated in a breach of U.S. government databases. Elsewhere, the Chinese routinely hack into U.S. corporations stealing information while engaging in intellectual property theft. One example is the widely held belief that China stole the designs for the newest U.S. fighter aircraft, the F-35. Already many are saying that one of the greatest threats to U.S. national security is cyber warfare and as of now, the Chinese seem to be far better prepared to wage it.
To ensure a stable, peaceful relationship in the future, the U.S. and China need to make their intentions clearer to each other. This is not to say that each other’s cards should be out in the open but greater understanding will go a long way to at least stabilizing tensions. Expectations from each other in the relationship should be put onto the table so as to get a clearer image of how both sides can work together and what is mutually achievable and what is not. In the minds of many, the U.S. is declining and China is ascending. Truth is both powers will see more stability than rapid rises or falls in the near future and that stability can be translated into the relationship.
The South China Sea dispute can explode into a conflict at any time and so it is necessary that China understand the consequences of its actions. Its constant antagonism of other regional powers serves to only worsen a delicate situation. For its part, the U.S. does need to understand that China is the power in that region; this is not a dispute on the periphery of the U.S. but on the periphery of China. Understanding that this dispute is of great importance to China will serve to better the way the U.S. approaches it when dealing with China.
The military relationship between both countries must improve as well. While China takes provocative military maneuvers, the U.S. must understand that China views our military maneuvers in the region in the same light. Greater steps must be taken towards collaboration between both militaries in the form of cooperative training, and involvement in international missions. Distrust will prevail though as long as China keeps with its massive military buildup which is unnecessary if it intends to have a peaceful rise. The issue of cyber warfare must be addressed as this is becoming one of the more distressing aspects of the relationship. The U.S. routinely accuses China of massive data breaches and hacks though it would be foolish to believe that the U.S. doesn’t engage in such activity as well. Regardless, steps should be taken to put an end to such massive attacks.
Additionally, both countries should aim to cooperate in issues where mutual goals are desired. These include the issue of North Korea and climate change among others. Both the U.S. and China stand to lose in both issues if they are not resolved and so the opportunity to cooperate exists. These opportunities should be taken immediately as success in them will translate into success elsewhere in the relationship.
During a meeting in Beijing in May this year, Xi declared to Secretary of State John Kerry that U.S.-China relations are stable and that steps should be taken to avoid damaging the relationship. In September this year, Xi will be making his first official state visit to the U.S. at the request of Obama. Visits such as these do not erase the problems in the relationship overnight but go a long way to ensuring stability. Yes, to the U.S. China is an economic competitor but so are many other countries. The Chinese see the U.S. in the same way. Both sides do technically interfere in areas that they should not though both are also world powers and are not restricted to the confines of their own borders. Ultimately though, both countries need to take more concrete steps towards improving the relationship as it is and will remain the most important world power relationship of the 21st century.