With the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) underway, the concern about the rapid deterioration in relations between China and the U.S. has relaxed to some degree. Ever since the beginning of the Obama administration, the fluctuation of Sino-U.S. relations has become the new normality of bilateral relations. This recent development is simply new evidence for that trend. However, China still has good reason to worry about the United States’ rebalancing strategy towards Asia.
This round of ups-and-downs highlighted the structural contradictions between China and the U.S. Although both countries would like to avoid the so-called Thucydides Trap––destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers––frictions and disputes are still difficult to avert. The Obama administration is right to pivot to Asia, seeing that future U.S. prosperity and security challenges lie in the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, the region is full of potential of economic growth as well as the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons from the Northeast Asia. What’s more, the Cold War has not ended yet in the Korean Peninsula, and the DPRK and ROK are literally still at war with each other. What President Obama miscalculated, then, is the use of the rebalancing strategy to contain China’s rise and squeeze the strategic space of China. This not only risks an irreversible deterioration of bilateral relations, but also of an early military showdown between the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 economies, which neither would like to see. For the U.S., the worst-case scenario is forcing the regional countries to choose between China and the U.S. That said, the recent U.S. aggression towards China are producing such effects anyway.
As the U.S. constructs a missile defense system in East Asia with the excuse of defending regional alliances, South Korea is remaining cautious not to irk China, despite strong pressure from the Pentagon. In earlier June, when the commander of the United States Forces Korea (USFK), Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, said the U.S. was considering to deploy THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) in Korea, the South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson was very quick to deny this by saying that Seoul had received no such request from Washington. Some military experts pointed out that such a system would threaten China’s highly valued portfolio of ballistic missiles. As such, South Korea is extremely sensitive about the issue.
With U.S. military presence and deployment approaching China, regional countries have good reason to ask if the U.S. is preparing for war against China. Even more, U.S. aggression towards China has alerted some Asian countries. For example, during a recent visit to Washington, the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott urged President Obama to remain focused on the U.S. strategic pivot to the region and to not view China’s rise as a threat. The Australian opposition party leader Tanya Plibersek made it even clearer, “Our alliance with the U.S. is really important to Australia right now, but we also have a very close relationship with China. The best outcome is to have strengthened, closer relationships with both.” Ms Plibersek’s remark showed the reluctance of regional countries that were forced to choose sides between two major powers.
The criticism by U.S. officials of China’s recent assertiveness in foreign policy and challenging China on its nine-dash line in the South China Sea inevitably added fuel to the fire of regional territorial disputes. It also emboldened Vietnam and the Philippines to act more provocatively. Top officials from Singapore correctly pointed out that the regional countries should not ignore the reasonable part of Chinese claims, as the nine-dash line existed long before the U.N. Convention of the Law of Sea was ratified.
While the U.S. repeatedly says that it is not excluding China from regional multilateral economic and trade negotiations, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), it is actually seen that the opposite is true. This is thus another example of American aggression against China. A recent example is the United States’ dissuasion of South Korea from joining the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) proposed by China last November. It is reported that the U.S. was deeply concerned over the South Korea’s participation in the mechanism, as it believes this would inevitably pose challenges towards the U.S.-dominated international economic order. Such a move is not unusual for the U.S. When Japan proposed the Asian Monetary Fund in 1990s, the U.S. did not hesitate to strongly oppose it; what’s more is that the U.S. succeeded.
When the U.S. agreed to development a new type of major power relationship with China, both sides were hopeful, but they were also doubtful. Such an arrangement is unprecedented and would therefore be innovative and challenging for both countries. Both sides would like to avoid confrontations and mange differences. However, if the U.S. frequently plays tricks in areas like the military, the economy, and trade, as well as foreign policy, the bilateral relationship will certainly suffer, and mutual confidence would be more difficult to build. For example, the indictment of five PLA officials was more of a farce, as humiliation can never achieve one country’s foreign policy objectives. Recently, more and more strategists from the U.S. began to question the Obama Administration’s policy towards China. In early June, the former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski criticized the U.S. military deployment in Asia, stating that it was sending a vague message of containment, and it characterized the interaction between the two countries as increasingly antagonistic.
With President Obama’s foreign policy job approval is at its historical low, it’s time for the administration to reconsider its approach to foreign policy. It is wise to recognize there are certain limits of U.S. power, but it is unwise to destabilize the regional balance of power by strengthening an alliance system that aims to contain China’s rise and squeeze its strategic space. If the U.S. is sincerely committed to the construction of the new type of major power relationship, it should take measures to ease the reasonable concerns of China, rather than manipulate regional concern of a rising China for political and security gains. The S&ED is an appropriate platform for the two countries to exchange ideas, and to enhance mutual understandings. This time, please waste no time!
Zhang Zhixin is the Chief of American Political Studies of Institute of American Studies, CICIR. His researches focus on the U.S. politics and US-China relations.