KANEOHE, HAWAII – The Aug. 19 dangerous encounter between a U.S. Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea was in the Pentagon’s words “certainly not in keeping with the kind of military-to-military relations” the United States seeks with China. Political relations are tenuous as well.
Many analysts in both the U.S. and China have warned of a “tipping point” in China-U.S. relations beyond which the two conclude that conflict is unavoidable and begin preparing for it in earnest while trying to hide their true intentions. This is different from hedging in that there is no easy way back.
Beyond the tipping point the national mind-set and policy decisions inexorably tilt and then flow toward conflict.
Such a clash of titans would not be a new phenomenon. In classic realist theory, established powers strive to preserve the status quo that assures their position at the top of the hierarchy and view emerging powers as potential threats. Rising powers feel constrained and strive to stretch the sinews of the international system. They fear that the dominant power will try to snuff them out before they become an existential threat.
Thucydides described this “natural” process regarding Athens and Sparta as a combination of “rise” and fear — which inevitably leads to war. Today this is known as the “Thucydides trap.” The international relations question of our age is: Can China and the U.S. avoid it?
This may sound like Chicken Little warning that “the sky is falling.” But the situation really is quite bad and growing worse by the day. It is now clear that China expects to play a role at “the center of the world’s political system.” It wants to be a new rule maker and an old rule breaker if it is in its national interest to do so. It wants to be an “exceptional” country like the U.S.
The accommodation of such a role for China by the U.S. is what President Xi Jinping presumably meant when he proposed a “new” type of major country relationship at his Sunnylands summit with U.S. President Barack Obama in June last year.
But as Ashley Tellis argues in his new book “Balancing Without Containment: An American Strategy for Managing China,” the loss of “primacy to China would fundamentally undermine the national security interests of the United States in the most comprehensive sense imaginable.”
The U.S. ideational, political, cultural and economic dominance of the international arena and decision making process would slowly erode and be replaced by that of China. America would no longer be the only “exceptional country” and the envy of the world, if it ever really was. The very way of life of Americans would be diminished and disparaged in the eyes of the world.
In short, we may be witnessing a fundamental U.S. foreign policy failure in East Asia. The U.S. has not been able to unify the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations against China, stem China’s assertiveness or even enhance stability in the South China Sea.
Its “pivot” has made the region more unstable and a cockpit of contention between it and China. Its attempts to impose an interim solution to the disputes there have so far failed.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, believes that the risk of war in Asia will increase over the next 10 years as the U.S. military technological edge over China erodes.
In an even stronger indication of a change in mind-set, the U.S. Air Force is deploying more B-2 stealth bombers and advanced B-52H strategic bombers to Guam.
In a clear allusion to China, a frustrated U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned those who violate the territorial integrity of nations by “force, coercion and intimidation” against doing so. Hagel also stated that “the United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged.”
Deep strategic thinkers like Tellis have sketched out a strategy to “manage” China’s rise. Whether by design or coincidence, pieces of this grand strategy are already being implemented.
Tellis calls his strategy “balancing without containment.” Others might call it “soft containment.” He proposes that “the U.S. pursue policies that simultaneously increase China’s stake in the existing global system and raise the costs of abusing its power.”
His strategy would also require supporting the states around China through increasing cooperation with them. This is already happening. According to Daniel Russell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, “we joined EAS (East Asian Summit) because, as an Asia-Pacific nation, we want to be at the table for a strategic discussion about how we build and shape the institution over time.”
Another element of this strategy is the enhancement of the U.S. military as a deterrent that reassures U.S. allies and convinces fence-sitters to lean toward it while dissuading China’s assertiveness toward its neighbors.
The last element is to promote “the highest velocity of technical change possible across the spectrum of civilian to military endeavors” — essentially to out-create and out-think China technically and economically. This is America’s best “weapon” and the key to its dominance and survival. But can it really out-think China with its increasingly tech-savvy 1.3 billion population?
Meanwhile, China perceives a somewhat different big and long-term picture. In its view the tectonic plates of the global international political system are inexorably shifting, and the U.S. and China are on opposite sides of the divide — and perhaps history.
The U.S. is yesterday’s and today’s sole superpower, but its credibility, legitimacy and ability to impose its will are fast eroding. Indeed, America is no longer a Leviathan overseeing and ruling the global system.
As one commentator puts it “The U.S. is deeply in debt; its middle class is crumbling; its industries have been hollowed out; its infrastructure is in disrepair; its education system is badly underfunded; and its social contract is in shambles.” It is also squandering blood and treasure as it tries in vain to sustain its dominance.
China’s leaders believe China represents the future, not just in hard power but also in economy, culture and values. Indeed, China’s leaders believe it is China’s destiny to regain its prominence if not pre-eminence in the region and perhaps eventually the world.
Many of its neighbors are keenly aware of this distinct possibility and are thus hedging and trying to maneuver between the two.
If the U.S. wants to avoid direct conflict or at least postpone it — and it is not obvious that the U.S. wants to do either — it has to accommodate to some degree China’s international interests and aspirations by sharing power: when, on what issues, how, and how much are challenges for U.S. government deep thinkers to ponder and negotiate with China.
For its part, China needs to prove by its actions that it will not threaten or use force to settle its disputes.
Such strategic “flexibility” by both parties will be necessary to avoid the worst scenario. The two have fundamental differences and conflicting “national interests.” It does not seem likely that the U.S. will “give” and China will “accept” what it will take to make this new relationship a reality.
Perhaps the tipping point has already been reached. If so, all we policy analysts and policymakers are doing now is akin to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
Mark J. Valencia, a maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia, is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, China.
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