While some Asian countries see the presence of the United States as a way to maximize their national interests, some in China are hesitant to accept the potential benefits of cooperation with the US. What if China chose to interact differently with the US in Asia? It may see a totally different situation and, more importantly, maximize its own national interests by making the best of a greater US presence. The prevailing logic is that the US will go all out to retain and reinforce its strength in Asia once it feels pressure from China, or it will willingly share the Asian space with China, if Beijing welcomes Washington’s presence and looks ready to cooperate in Asia.
Rationally speaking, the US is no longer in a position to contain China. After all, present-day China differs from the former Soviet Union. It has never wanted to compete with the US for world hegemony, as the former Soviet Union did. Moreover, the two countries have become highly dependent on each other and fall under the same system in terms of economic development. Like it or not, the US administration can never totally separate the US economy from China’s economic rise. In this sense, America’s China strategy is nothing more than a deterrent.
As a matter of fact, cooperation remains a major feature of high-level Sino-US relations. Ever since the Cold War when the US and China partnered to confront the hegemony of the former Soviet Union, the relationship between these two economic powers has become of global significance. Now that the Soviet Union has dissolved, the bond between China and the United States has become the world’s most important bilateral relationship. As the world’s sole superpower, the United States carefully watches China’s rise, while promoting global cooperation.
As the world’s ‘commander-in-chief,’ the United States needs a ‘second-in-command’ to share the responsibilities of policing the globe. Since the US is presently dealing with domestic issues, it may need China to take on more international responsibilities. The US has in the past complained about China ‘hitching a ride’ and rarely performing international duties. The US believes that the international rewards given to any country should be measured by the fulfillment of its international responsibilities.
China may well capitalize on the world’s request for Beijing to become more assertive. China’s military modernization, for instance, has always been labeled by the US and neighboring countries as a threat to regional security and stability. How can China modernize its military, while countering the apprehensions of its Asian neighbors at the same time? Given China’s current political system and economic structure, a Sino-US military race will inevitably drive China toward a military economy similar to the former Soviet Union’s, and deny it of any opportunity for sustainable development. One solution for this dilemma is to change its mode of military modernization, that is, to include its military accomplishments as part of its endeavor to fulfill international responsibilities. It should also increase the transparency and expectancy of its policies in this regard.
As for the United States’ TPP initiative, China should be reasonable. Without China’s participation, this initiative will not gain any ground. The US has embarked on this partnership with the goal of opening China up economically, as it believes that China has reaped all the benefits of the international system but not taken any of the responsibilities. China can influence the TPP by participating in the implementation of the initiative, thereby preventing it from developing into an economic or trade bloc.
Given the fact that the US is the ‘commander-in-chief’ of the world system and China follows as the ‘second-in-command,’ both are obliged to hold themselves responsible for the whole system, even if the benefits of this system are skewed towards the United States. If China agrees to cooperate more closely with the US on this front, it will reduce the pressures imposed by the US via its Asian allies. Also, if China weighs its own interests from the perspective of the overall world system, its neighbors will surely see it with a totally different eye.
In recent years, China has made an effort to reach out to as many of its neighbors as possible. Although Vietnam and the Philippines have grown closer to the US, China hasn’t given up on them. Instead, it has tried various economic incentives to counter those of the United States. Regretfully, however, China’s efforts have not yielded positive results. The harder China tries to win over these countries, the more closely they attach themselves to the US. Of the many factors to blame for the situation, two are of paramount importance.
Ever since late last century, China has made a tremendous effort to improve relations with its Asian neighbors, recording successes on the economic front and witnessing encouraging developments in many other fields. However, China has failed to properly handle the South China Sea issue. Since China is not ready to solve the South China Sea issue from the perspective of overall regional interests, its reaction has given Vietnam, the Philippines and others an extra excuse to invite US participation, and also lost sympathy and support from countries not involved in the issue. Although many countries in the region are less concerned with the sovereignty dispute, they are deeply concerned with the overall regional interests. Clearly, both the US and other countries have expressed their concern over the South China Sea issue from the perspective of ‘safe sailing’ through international waters.
Furthermore, small countries hate to deal with big powers all on their own, an inherent mindset China has overlooked. China has idealistically been trumpeting its policy slogan of a peaceful rise, promising not to pose a threat to any country. In actuality, however, this is more difficult than it seems. It will be difficult for China to convey the necessary sincerity to many of the smaller countries. One solution is for China to look at the issue from the standpoint of smaller, developing countries. If China does not show respect to small countries in such matters, like the US often does, it will push these countries closer to the United States. On issues like that of the South China Sea, China should shift from its traditional bilateralism to modern bilateralism; namely, a discussion of bilateral issues within a multilateral framework, such as between China and the ASEAN. This will relieve the small countries of their fears and concerns. As a matter of fact, the discussion on the norms of behaviors by countries around the South China Sea last year was a step in the right direction.
The South China Sea issue remains of the utmost delicacy for China. Without an effort to explore multilateral solutions to the issues in the region, the chances for confrontation with the US and other countries in Asia will increase. It is clear that a forceful bilateral persuasion will only push countries like Vietnam and the Philippines further away. In the coming decades, a strategy of delicate multilateralism is central to China’s peaceful rise.
Zheng Yongnian is the Director of East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.
Original Chinese Version: first published in Lianhe Zaobao.