U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta attended the Shangri-La Dialogue for the first time in early June and delivered a speech titled “US rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific". The speech further confirmed that America’s strategic shift of its center of gravity to the Asia-Pacific region is no longer a decision to make, but a decision to implement. The shift has a strong China "flavor" in terms of matters military, economic, and diplomatic and it will shape bilateral relations in the coming years without any doubt.
Despite three decades worth of effort in political, economic, social, cultural, and even military exchanges, the strategic mutual trust between China and the United States has not increased as significantly as expected. On the contrary, the past several years have witnessed an increase of "strategic deficit." An outdated, arrogant, and narrow-minded mentality characterized by "zero-sum" and "Cold War" still haunts their bilateral relations. The American strategic shift to Asia-Pacific, if not well managed, will likely strengthen rather than mitigate the current strategic suspicion between the two countries.
It is possible as a result that China and the U.S. will develop a relationship of "competitive" essence in political, economic, diplomatic and military areas where they will more strongly compete for influence. Even though the United States has been complaining about China's military modernization for being not transparent in this regard, China will continue to invest in research development of new weapons systems. Its military modernization will make the present dominant player in the West Pacific - the United States - less comfortable. Its capacity building in so called "area denial" and "anti-access" defense is considered a challenge to America’s military presence in the area, and has been used as a convenient justification for the new Air Sea Battle concept. The U.S.’s military rebalance toward Asia-Pacific is understood as a major effort to prevent China from challenging its dominance in the region. In addition, China is playing a more important role on Northeast Asia, South Asia, and Middle East security issues, but China and US interests in these regional matters may not be identical or always in conflict. Other than bilateral and regional security issues, America’s position and policy in territory disputes between China and its neighbors may complicate bilateral relations. Traditional American policy has been one of non-involvement in territory disputes, but Secretary of State Clinton's talks at the ASEAN Regional Forum raised lots of concerns in China. In the economic area, while the United States is promoting negotiation of a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), China is making efforts to promote free trade areas with neighboring countries. It seems that both countries are competing for economic cooperation among countries within the region. Finally, with the resumption of American interest in multilateral regimes in the Asia-Pacific, it is likely both countries also will compete over influence in these mechanisms.
A “competitive” relationship does not necessarily mean that bilateral relations will move toward a confrontational direction. So far, the military aspect of American rebalance toward Asia-Pacific is still sort of a defensive posture, even though in economic and political areas it has more of a competitive essence. China and the United States still share much common interest in maintaining regional and/or global stability and prosperity. In tackling most regional challenges, China’s cooperation is important and necessary. It is somewhat impossible for the United States to confront China while seeking cooperation with it. It is not strange for China and the U.S. to have differences and disputes over ideological issues, however nowadays the bilateral relationship between the two is nothing similar to that between the U.S. and Soviet Union in the Cold War era. China and the U.S. have deepened their economic cooperation, and most disputes over economic issues are manageable and able to be addressed through existing mechanisms. There is no doubt now that more American attention will be paid to the Asia-Pacific than to other areas, however that does not mean it will automatically push ASEAN countries closer to the United States and further away from China. It is not in ASEAN countries' interest to make a choice between siding with either China or the U.S. Finally, because of budget constraints, the American military posture in the Asia-Pacific conveys a clear message: it wants to play a leading role in this region by doing more with less money. Therefore, direct confrontation between the two countries is less likely.
To prevent a competitive relationship from developing into a confrontational one, China and the U.S. need to invest a lot of energy in managing stability and possible causes of crisis. Both countries should reassess their own power and expectations of the other in a rational way, and being neither over-pessimistic nor over-optimistic is conducive to normal bilateral relations. Other than that, some factors which might seriously impact bilateral relations also need to be managed. The most important is the third party issue in Sino-U.S. relations, namely the third country which may have close relations with either China or the United States, and either country's policy toward the third country will influence that country's relations with the other side. In the past, the third party has been a positive component in Sino-U.S. relations, however now it is increasingly a challenge for both countries to manage. China has some territory disputes with neighboring countries, and the U.S. position or policy toward these countries might be misinterpreted or overplayed by its allies and friends, thus posing a serious challenge to Sino-U.S. relations. In addition, with America’s relative decline and China’s rise, the change of national mentality in both countries might influence future crisis management. In summary, Sino-US relations in the 21st century should not be a zero-sum game. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, for China and the U.S. "conflict is a choice, not a necessity." With the U.S. strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific, the most important challenge for both countries is to explore how to build a new type of bilateral relationship rather than prepare for a possible lose-lose conflict.
Fan Jishe is a Senior Fellow of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and also Deputy Director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation Studies.