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Foreign Policy

The Biggest Strategic Misunderstanding between China and U.S.

Dec 09 , 2016
  • Zheng Yu

    Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

In recent years, clashes between China and the US over the South China Sea have become increasingly fierce. The two sides were very close to military confrontation in summer 2006. This has greatly disrupted their overall relations, delayed and weakened cooperation on a series of urgent issues, worsened the situation in the Western Pacific and Northeast Asia, adding much turbulence to the already crisis-laden world. The US, the country on the eastern Pacific coast, has all along declared that it has no position on disputes over features in the South China Sea — yet just conducted an unprecedentedly tense diplomatic and military game against China in the Western Pacific. Isn’t it a wry sarcasm? This author believes that the dispute between China and the US or in other words America’s obstruction and opposition to China’s conduct in the South China Sea is based on a misjudgment without any logical foundation, which may well be a fake proposition used to gloss over the necessity of moving America’s strategic center of gravity eastward. The misjudgment is the idea that China’s land reclamation activities are designed to control international trade routes in the South China Sea, thus establishing its regional hegemony. I’ll argue that this judgment lacks factual or logical basis.

First, it wrongly equates China’s territorial claims to hegemonic pursuit. As everyone knows, New China has been confronted with territorial disputes with multiple neighboring countries since its founding in 1949. These historical leftovers had been accumulated in incessant troubles in and out of the country during the Qing Dynasty and after the 1911 Revolution. These disputes have one common feature: Almost all disputed territories were or still are under the actual control of the opposite side. In the past 70 years, from the 1980s when China’s economic and military strength was relatively poor to the 21st century when its military power has grown rapidly, the Chinese government almost never has used or tried to use force to address territorial disputes. Since the 1990s in particular, China has not engaged in military conflict with any neighbor for territorial reasons, let alone being the first to use military means to resolve differences. As China gradually resolves its land territorial disputes with majority of its neighbors (except for India) and as its demands for marine resources expand, China has started to address its maritime territorial disputes with neighbors since the beginning of this century. While conducting consultation and negotiation with relevant countries, China has also started construction of necessary military and civilian facilities on islets and reefs under its actual control. These facilities actually contribute to greater security of international trade routes. China not only advocates but also practices resolution of disputes by peaceful means. China is already the world’s second-largest economy yet has consistently refused to use force to resolve its disputes with several much smaller and weaker countries. It is fairly difficult to argue that such a country would seek regional hegemony by controlling sea lanes.

Second, China cannot in reality control international trade routes in the Western Pacific by controlling South China Sea even if it did want to do so. Even if China was able to control the Nansha (Spratly) Islands effectively and set up an aircraft carrier base and air force base, they would not serve as forward bases for it to effectively control the Strait of Malacca or the proposed Isthmus of Kra canal, both being 1,500 kilometers away from Nansha and 4,000 kilometers from China’s mainland. In the foreseeable future, China will not have sufficient carrier formations or naval aviation soldiers to control those maritime hubs. China’s attempt to blockade sea-lanes in the South China Sea, should it occur, could well be countered at the Strait of Malacca. In that situation, how would China sustain 70% of its external trade and oil imports that go through the strait now? While the US may not have the ability to use force to effectively prevent China from safeguarding its sovereignty and conducting land-reclamation activities, China also does not have the ability to ensure navigation safety of its commercial fleets during war. It is rather unbelievable that China would seek ocean supremacy when it has only one carrier formation while the US has 11.

Finally, China does not have the ability to eliminate its reliance on sea-lanes in the Western Pacific by opening up land passages. In the foreseeable future, the only way for China to control Western Pacific sea-lanes through the South China Sea is for it to fully break away from dependence on these lanes. Obviously that is not achievable at all. At present, Gwadar Port constructed jointly by China and Pakistan is in operation. Meanwhile, China is now planning to build a 2,000-kilometer railway linking it with Kashgar, a city in western China. Even if the various security risks are ignored, this international transport lane, when completed, will be significant only for the development of China’s west but insufficient for the transport needs of huge volume of trade generated in eastern coastal China. In this connection, for a country with nearly 1.4 billion people and a high dependence on foreign trade, security of sea-lanes in the Western Pacific is first of all a matter of life and death for China. Obviously any attempt to seek hegemony by controlling those sea-lanes will only lead to regional turbulence, which in turn will endanger the security of China’s own international transport routes.

Defusing strategic mutual suspicion and misunderstanding and reaching strategic understanding and interest coordination through consultation will benefit not only the Chinese and American peoples but also the international community that is laden with many common challenges and crises.

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