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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.

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