China, US relations about to reach a point of no return?

Updated on

From the dangerous maneuverings in the South China Sea to the Elephant in the room that is the East China Sea issue to the cyber-espionage claims to various other events, it is clear that both the United States and China are flirting dangerously close to a conflict that threatens the Sino-US relations, something that does not bode well for the prospect of regional peace and stability.

In recent times, many analysts have used the term ‘tipping point’ in anything that has to deal with the Sino-US relationship while media constantly reports of a crisis that is about to happen. It is not that bad at the moment but things could get more serious in the near future. The broader regional landscape needs to be given a thorough look in order to develop a better understanding of the Sino-US relation which is without any doubt, the most important relationship of the region.

Analyzing Chinese regional aims

It’s a multi-faceted relationship where one party’s primacy is being questioned boldly by another party which is on the rise and flexing its muscles. Asia is experiencing an uneven multipolarity which was something no one thought of way back in 1995 when US was the all-conquering maw of the ocean. A couple of decades later, new nations are rising in Asia with the continental powers categorized in two tiers with China leading the way.

The likes of Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam and even Pakistan despite its multiple problems, are experiencing an economic surge which was never on the cards a few years back.

However, most of the tier two countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, India etc, are not really looking to redesign the East Asian order by any means.

China on the other hand, is clearly not happy with the current order and strongly believes that in the long run, the fate of Asia should not be shaped in Washington. Beijing no more wants to see its continent being instructed and shaped by the West and is going to great lengths to ward off American involvement in the region.

Most of the rising nations in Asia are too weak to entertain their own visions of a new Asian order while the rest are US allies such as South Korea, Australia and Japan. And then there are nations such as Indonesia who want to maintain equipoise with both US and China and don’t want to offend any party.

Most of the ASEAN states on the other hand, have already showed from the South China Sea issue that they are too weak to question China at any step despite strong backing from Washington.

China, US relations not enjoying the best of times

Clearly, US wants to reshape Asia. However, it is not going to be an easy task. With multiple global obligations and the fact that the post 9/11 adventures have taken a toll on it to the wide variety of domestic issues, US is not in any position to create a rebalancing act in East Asia which it enjoyed in the last decade of the last century.

Fully aware of the recent shifts in the region, US could be looking for a peaceful way to co-exist with China which for the time being, is a rising, peaceful state but with a few glaring issues that need to be sorted out.

The fact that the bilateral trade between the two has grown by 7,550% 1985-2014, means that both states can’t really afford to lock horns with each other at this moment in time.

While many analysts believe that the world, including China itself, is unprepared for China’s rise, one also has to look at the questions that are being posed at  US from its willingness to leave China be and let it become a prosperous one or become a thorn in its neck and create as many hurdles as it can so that Beijing dithers its way towards achieving its foreign policy goals.

However, it must also be noted that US insecurities with regards to China are largely in the strategic field. Washington clearly does not like the prospect of a stronger China carrying its weight around the region. Australia for one, is not happy with China’s aspirations in the South China Sea and understandably, wants to shore up its naval capacity in a bid to counter Chinese presence, knowing that any conflict in the disputed waters will trickle down on Australia.

China, US relations and the element of nationalism

Nationalism has always been a driving factor in Chinese foreign policy. China has brandied about itself in Central Asia, has become a strong economic partner to Pakistan, is maintaining cordial ties with Russia and in South China Sea, is creating a regional order that aims at pinning down its rival claimants one by one, some through coercive means and some through diplomatic means.

China may not be the only rising power in Asia but the manner in which its going about its business means that its regional rivals don’t have the stomach to take it head on which makes things interesting for US while also giving it more headaches than necessary.

While the likes of Australia, Japan and a few others may see US as the pre-eminent security actor in Asian security hierarchy, China disagrees. Beijing has kept on stating that it will not allow an external force to shape the destiny of the region and this is the perfect statement that has actually helped it in garnering more regional support than it had expected.

Well-measured statements the order of the day!

Although all signs lead to a possible conflict, there is still more than just one point of returning to a peaceful co-existence. Lobbying starts behind closed doors, while two powers are not always doomed to collide at some stage. Similarly, well-thought out statements go a long way in defining relationships between two countries.

Statements given by both sides remind us of the Thucydides ‘trap’ that is the Sino-US relationship. Leaders of both countries have made statements that don’t really help in calming the situation. Back in February this year, Obama said: “That is why we have to make sure the United States—and not countries like China—is the one writing this century’s rules for the world economy.” And only a few weeks back, an unnamed US official publically criticized Britain’s “constant accommodation” of China and termed British tactics as not the “best way to engage a rising power”. Such statements not only erode confidence in allies, they also make it harder for Washington to justify its policy on China.

China for its part, has also rarely chosen to take a step back and has always retorted in kind. Just a few years ago, a Chinese official criticized US for not letting Asia run its own affairs before stating that, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”

Such bullish statements lead both sides into considering each other as adversaries in the security realm. In more ways than one, one nation is contributing the security anxieties of the other and the other state does that in kind.

There are always going to be muscular ways to respond to a situation. There is no denying that. However, it must be noted that coercive means are often used as the last resort and it is high time for the two states to stop using issues such as the South China Sea, cyber-espionage and a whole range of other issues as the perfect platform to create a storm which will not remain confined to just one region or two when it kicks off.

For now, Sino-US relations might not be at a great place but there is still a lot of time for both sides to re-think and reassess their respective measures and put a lid on these corrosive tactics that won’t do the world any good.

Leave a Comment