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Deep reasons for China and US to bristle

August 21, 2010

By Jingdong Yuan
Asia Times
August 20, 2010

SYDNEY, Australia - China's strong reaction to
the United States' call for multilateral
negotiation to resolve territorial disputes in
the South China Sea fits the rising tide of
tensions between Beijing and Washington over a number of issues.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi stated that
interventions last month from US Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton suggested the US was
ganging with other countries in the region
against China. Chinese analysts also point to
US-South Korea military exercises staged in the
Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan as nothing but
provocation and infringements of China's maritime interests.

However, beneath the public exchanges are deeper
reasons for the apparently more assertive and
even confrontational posture being adopted by
both sides. For the United States, China's
continuing economic rise and growing military
power pose serious challenges, both to its
predominance in Asia and its ability to deal with
global issues ranging from nuclear
non-proliferation to climate change. China's
economy seems on a roll compared with a stagnant
US economy, where unemployment has remained
unacceptably high since the financial crisis
started two years. China is on target to replace
Japan as the world's second-largest economy.

Military modernization also marches on in China,
with a focus on a strategy of anti-access and
area-denial that could seriously threaten the
ability of the US navy to gain access to the
region. A report released this week by the
Pentagon points to Chinese procurement and
deployment of anti-ship ballistic and cruise
missiles, new submarines and surface ships, and
asymmetrical capabilities such as cyber warfare.

Washington is concerned that growing economic
power and military capabilities could embolden
the Chinese leadership to take a more assertive
line in foreign policy and become less willing to
cooperate with the international community on
issues where China's role is critical. At the
same time, such a role also requires Beijing to
sacrifice its own interests for the larger public
good, including measures to deal with climate
change and Iran's nuclear program.

Of particular concern is what Washington views as
China's deliberate efforts to nudge the US out of
Asia. Chinese assertions that the South China Sea
is one of its core interests on a par with
Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang indicates that Beijing
will no longer tolerate foreign meddling on the
territorial issue and could strong-arm other
parties to the dispute into submission on its own terms.

Beijing has equal, if not greater, grievance
against US actions that it considers detrimental
to Chinese national interests. The arms sales and
President Barack Obama's meeting with the Dalai
Lama are viewed as continued American interference in China's domestic affairs.

On the Taiwan issue in particular, cross-strait
relations have been relatively stable ever since
Ma Ying-jeou took the president's office in
Taipei. Bilateral economic ties have continued to
deepen and the two sides have recently signed the
Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA)
that would further facilitate bilateral economic
interactions. Cross-strait ties have also been
strengthened through direct flights and
educational and tourist agreements. Under such
circumstances, US arms sales touched off strong reactions from Beijing.

Chinese analysts argue recent US policy shift
toward Asia is aimed at constraining and even
containing China's rise and influence in the
region. US calls for resolving maritime disputes
in the South China Sea are interpreted by Beijing
as deliberate attempts to draw some of the
parties to the dispute into US embrace for the
latter's strategic objective of reasserting
dominance after a period of neglect.

An indication of this strategy is reflected in
the apparently warming ties between Washington
and Hanoi. The two countries recently marked
their 15th anniversary of diplomatic relations
with joint naval exercises involving the USS John
McCain. What is most significant is the reported
US-Vietnam negotiation of nuclear cooperation
where the US would allow Vietnam to enrich uranium.

US-South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea
and the Sea of Japan, which included the
participation of the aircraft carrier USS George
Washington and ostensibly as a show of resolve
and response to North Korea's alleged sinking of
the South Korean ship the Cheonan, are viewed by
Chinese analysts as a provocation. Added to this
was the new US-ROK ''2+2'' meeting held in Seoul
that involve the two countries' foreign and
defense ministers. The signal is not lost to
Beijing: Washington's efforts to strengthen
military alliances in the region are aimed at
reasserting US dominance and containing China's influence.

Underlying the growing tension and maneuvering is
the lack of mutual trust and in-depth strategic
communication. This has left much room for mutual
suspicion, misapprehension, and even
miscalculation. And this is taking place at a
time the US is seeking to reassert its primacy in
Asia while China is trying to claim what it views
its rightful place in the region. The contest
could put East Asia's stability and prosperity at
great peril to the detriment of all involved.

Clearly, managing the changing Sino-US relations
is a critical task for leaders and strategists in
both countries. However, differences in
perceptions and interests, coupled with domestic
politics in China and the United States, make
such a task at once difficult and imperative.
Obama needs to assert himself and dispel the
notion that he is weak and too accommodative on
foreign policy issues. In China, the pending
leadership transition also raises the stakes for
contenders to appear firm on issues vital to China's core interests.

It is not inevitable that the two countries are
destined on a slippery slide to confrontation.
After all, too much is at stake and neither power
can afford another cold war in the 21st century.
However, such recognition is hardly a guarantee
that future conflicts can be avoided. Much
depends on whether cooler heads will prevail in
Beijing and Washington even if they have to live
with a strategic rivalry for decades to come.

* Dr Jingdong Yuan is an associate professor at
the Center for International Security Studies, the University of Sydney.
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