China-USA: Who Will Own The “Pacific Century”?

Essay: A Chinese commentator notes a disturbing uptick in U.S. drumbeating in the Pacific region. But China’s response, he warns, should be diplomatic pragmatism not more nationalistic posturing.

US Naval exercise in the South China Sea
US Naval exercise in the South China Sea
Xie Tao

BEIJING - In early 1941, when America was still standing by as a neutral observer of the European battlefield, Time Magazine founder Henry Luce wrote an essay calling on his countrymen to abandon isolationism, assume the role of democratic missionary and establish "the first great American century."

Fast forward to another American essay, delivered last month by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the eve of the 19th gathering of leaders of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) forum. Clinton described how America's strategic focus over the next decade will shift to the Asia-Pacific region. This, she declared, will establish "America's Pacific Century."

Seventy years separate these two expressions, and yet the ambition of the United States to attempt to dominate the world remains the same.

However, unlike 70 years ago, with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the worst economic recession since 1929, and its government facing a severe debt crisis, America's strength has been largely reduced.

Even more important, 70 years ago China was poor, backward and struggling to push back the Japanese invasion. It has now grown into the most influential country of the Pacific's western rim, and plays an increasingly important role in international affairs.

At the start of the 21st Century, many believed it would be "China's Century." So Clinton's words beg the question: is this going to be "America's Pacific Century" or "China's Century" ?

Most Americans see China's rise as some kind of threat to vital U.S. interests. In the just concluded APEC summit, President Obama pushed the idea of a Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP), though it was not on the official agenda.

Yet China, as the biggest economic entity in the western Pacific, and the world's No. 2 economy, was not invited to participate.

Following the summit, President Obama made a visit to Australia and signed an agreement establishing a permanent Marine base.

For many, including the Chinese government, these US measures are designed to check China's rise, and to fulfill an "American Pacific Century" agenda.

All of a sudden, the Pacific is becoming the center of the two countries' competition. The Pacific no longer seems so pacific.

Facing this series of U.S initiatives, China's policymakers ought to worry and reflect. Since the "peaceful rise" in 2005, documented in the recently published white paper China's peaceful development, we are stressing repeatedly that a powerful China will not be a threat to any country.

Yet, the vast majority of Americans do not believe it. Worse still, many of China's neighboring countries also regard China as a threat.

Because of this generally shared perception of threat, America needs no excuses to intervene on a series of fronts, notably the South China Sea conflicts. It also gives America the opportunity to establish new strategic relationships with China's neighbors, or to reinforce its existing ones.

Some might say that a strong China is bound to arouse concern and suspicion in certain countries. But why can other nations be strong without intimidating their neighbors?

China's situation today is related to its foreign policy. And the year 2010 is a testament of that. China's hard-line stance in its dealing with the disputes over the Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea prompted skepticism from many countries in the region towards China's peaceful rise statement. In turn, they move closer to the US in order to contain China.

Feeding foreign distrust

Not hanging tough does not imply compromising on territorial disputes. But displaying toughness often has a negative effect. A foreign policy not only matters in its objectives, but also in its methods. As long as it helps to resolve arguments, it's worth trying reconciliation whether multilateral or bilateral. Didn't China emphasize the multilateral mechanism in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula?

China's domestic press has also played its part in raising other countries' distrust of China. Undoubtedly, every media has its own freedom of press. But an irrational advocating of hard-line "deterrent" and "countering" initiatives will mislead public and policy makers abroad – and feed the "China threat" theory. Moreover, such statements mislead the Chinese public, stirring up nationalism and forcing China's policymakers into an ever tougher stance.

The US strategic presence in Asia can actually ease some countries' concerns, and promotes an overall regional security and stability. China should thus regard the "return" of America to Asia calmly. It is in fact an opportunity to reflect and readjust China's diplomatic strategy to prepare for the potential negative effects on its economy and security that America's return might bring.

Nothing should prevent peaceful coexistence between the two countries. The future Pacific Century belongs to neither America nor China, but to the whole world.

Read the original article in Chinese


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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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