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Securing the Global Commons, a New Foundation for the Sino-US Relationship

Mar 19 , 2012
  • Li Yan

    Assistant Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

There has been much discussion in the U.S. recently about Chinese activities in the global commons, the areas of outer space, cyberspace, airspace and the seas. The most recent about Chinese cyber attack plans came from Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, the newly confirmed Pacific Commander, and Ronald L. Burgess Jr, Director for Defense Intelligence Agency. At the same time, some outstanding U.S. experts like Kenneth G. Lieberthal from the Council for Foreign Relations and Phillip C. Saunders from the U.S. National Defense University wrote about the cyber posturing between China and the U.S., warning against the risks of a new Cold War in cyberspace.

Mutual Insecurity

All of them reflect U.S. concerns about the so-called Chinese asymmetric strategy (anti-access, or area denial, strategy) as the PLA progresses toward modernization. Some Americans think that China has been developing an offensive capacity for use in the global commons that could impose significant risk to U.S. military activities. It is well known that the U.S. armed forces depend highly on the global commons in which to roam. Thus, Chinese actions are viewed as threats and huge challenges to U.S. military supremacy.

However, China is feeling much more threatened from the U.S. side in cyberspace and outer space. It was the U.S. that established the world’s first Cyber Command. And many U.S. defense officials have talked about the possibility of launching cyber attacks on other countries. Moreover, the U.S. has absolute advantages in cyber technologies. These aspects make the Chinese feel threatened in their daily life and worried about national security in case of conflict. So it is in outer space.

The above U.S. comments reflect a new scenario in Sino-U.S. relations that indicates a kind of mutual insecurity is forming in the global commons. The U.S. is suspicious of Chinese intentions to invest. At the same time, China feels more and more pressure from U.S. aggressive actions. With this sense of insecurity, any potential investment by one side is probably viewed as new threats by the other side. And a more dangerous scenario is the invisible competition, technologically and militarily, in the global commons which will lead to more insecurity.

The mutual insecurity is rapidly looming to the forefront of Sino-U.S. relations in a negative way and is seriously influencing the threat perception on both sides. Based on a primary statistic, there have been more than twenty media reports in the U.S. about China’s so-called cyber aggressiveness since early 2011. Although most of these reports are unbelievable, it really reflects the increasing importance of the issue. Similarly, Chinese people keep a watchful eye on the U.S. International Strategy for Cyber Space, the DoD’s cyber operational strategy and some horrible media descriptions about cyber wars with China.

What is worse, the looming mutual insecurity occurs simultaneously with evolving Sino-U.S. relations, which adds more anxiety.

Evolving Sino-U.S. Relations

Sino-U.S. relations are currently undergoing some fundamental changes which may constitute a new challenge for leaders and experts on both sides.

The first change results from the potential end of the global counter-terrorism era. As U.S. armed forces pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the counter-terrorism collaboration between China and the U.S. is fading away. This means one of the most important pillars characterising Sino-U.S. relations in the past decade disappears. Also, the potential end of counterterrorism provides the U.S. with more resources to deal with other challenges, including emerging powers.

Another fundamental change concerns Sino-U.S. economic and trade relations. The economic and trade link has long been the cornerstone of the whole relationship and always plays a decisive role at critical moments. However, as both countries begin to undergo economic transitions, there is some evidence that the cornerstone is becoming a stumbling block. The direct competition between these two nations over the size of their economies, industrial structures and share of the markets is becoming a distinct characteristic of the political relationship.

And the sharp increase in production costs, resulting from the rise in Chinese workers’ wages and continuous appreciation of the RMB, makes the Chinese market less attractive to American corporations. So with the inevitable withdrawal of American business from China there will be a loosening of economic ties between the nations.

The danger of these changes lies in the possible collapse of the foundations of a positive, cooperative and comprehensive Sino-U.S. relationship, especially considering the evolving balance of power between them and lack of mutual trust in other fields, like the long stagnant military-to-military relations.

These aspects of the Sino-U.S. relationship are contextual indicators of the importance and significance of dealing with the global commons issue.

New Chance for New Foundation

It is not in either Chinese or U.S. interests for mutual distrust between the two countries to continue. And a potential confrontation in the global commons will be bad news for both international security and prosperity. Both nations should pursue an interactive approach that strives to deal with their mutual interests.

In fact, China and the U.S. have many common interests in the global commons. A fundamental interest is to maintain secure, open and stable access. For cyber security issues, both have to deal with problems like hackers, cyber terrorism and cyber crime. In outer space, maintaining non-militarization and dealing with space trash are of mutual interest. For the maritime common, both countries need to confront threats from pirates, and they have already collaborated in doing so in the Gulf of Aden.

Another common interest concerns the formulation of international ‘norms’, or practices, related to the global commons. The lack of norms in cyberspace and outer space is partly responsible for the mutual insecurity and suspicion on both sides. So it is imperative to formulate governance systems acceptable to the international community to regulate the behaviors of all nations. In this process, China and the U.S. undoubtedly will play an indispensable role.

Cooperation in the global commons – an issue related to international security – will also have significant implications for the current Sino-U.S. relationship. It is undoubtedly a strategic issue and cooperation between the U.S. and China has the potential to build a new domain for military-to-military exchanges. The exchanges need to be upgraded from the current symbolic level to be substantial, high-end true cooperation. Moreover, pursuing common interests and enhancing cooperation on such a global issue as the commons can contribute to more mutual trust which is lacking in the current relationship.

In essence, their mutual insecurity requires both the U.S. and China to deal with it promptly in a cooperative way. Cooperation on the global commons issue could be the basis for a new foundation for the Sino-U.S. relationship, a vital concern for the elites of both nations.


Li Yan is a scholar from the Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). His fields of research include military and security affairs concerning the U.S. and Sino-U.S. relations

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