Tensions are playing out in the South China Sea, and stakes couldn't be higher.
BEIJING — The disputed South China Sea is poised to become the most antagonistic of Sino-American conflicts, if the tough rhetoric from President Barack Obama, high officials and think tanks are any indication.
Of course, this isn't a situation China will relish, because while it is accustomed to being a powerful, competitive nation and a strong global player, it hasn't been in direct competition with its Western counterpart. Up to now, China and the United States have avoided a face-to-face rivalry, and in particular, a fierce geopolitical confrontation. And the two countries' core concerns have generally been unrelated.
But China's rise has become perhaps the biggest variable in today's geopolitical landscape, changing both the pattern of power and the methods of using it. Perhaps the question is how the Thucydides trap — a phrase used to describe the likelihood of conflict between a rising power and a currently dominant one — will play out. The South China Sea circumstances certainly confirm the growing uncertainty of the relationship between the United States and China.
Washington's anxiety over China's determination to safeguard its sovereignty and grow its territory represents a new source of "mutual suspicion." Among America's core interests are to defend its global leadership and predominance. It's constantly watching for any potential threat.
Since Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter took office, America's psychological defense against China has grown, which is consistent with the viewpoint he expressed in the book he co-authored with former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America. In it, they argue that the United States needs to identify the risks of threats and adopt a strategy of prevention.
Clearly the more China emerges as a world power, the more anxious the U.S. becomes.
The U.S. Navy began showing an interest in China in 2000. That was also the year the U.S. Congress began requiring the Defense Department to submit an annual China Military Power Report as a condition for reviewing the defense budget. Over the years, China has gone from being a so-called "C list-threat" to being an "A list-threat."
Both 9/11 and the global financial crisis temporarily shifted U.S. focus. Chaos in the Middle East and in Ukraine haven't helped. In fact, they've given way to a strategic opportunity for China. Even so, U.S. policy towards China is significantly changing, illustrated by the "qualitative change" of the South China Sea issue. The United States is now treating China like a competitive peer instead of a parallel player.
Global security dominance
Since the beginning of this year, the Obama Administration has repeatedly commented on the tensions in the South China Sea. The U.S. State Department and the Defense Department in particular have issued numerous declarations on the matter. The U.S. Navy even dispatched sophisticated reconnaissance aircraft to investigate above the islands where China is building up its military to expanding its territorial reach. It also strategically included the media.
The U.S. is not a southeast Asian nation, so why is Washington so disturbed by China's movements over the past month? While China is convinced that the United States has no right to intervene in regional territorial disputes, Washington regards it as a significant part of its diplomatic relations with China.
Changing U.S. policy towards China is being reflected in several ways. First, China's Silk Road Economic Belt and the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are likely to reshape Eurasia"s economic system. But since the end of World War II, America's interest has been to prevent any other country from dominating the Eurasian continent. Second, China and Russia are becoming closer, collaborating on various major issues. The more repressed Russian becomes, the closer its ties with China.
For the U.S., relations with China are very different from those with Russia. Not only do America and Russia represent two lateral geopolitical systems, they are also parallel geo-economic entities. They belong to utterly opposing ideological camps. The most significant common interest is the prevention of nuclear war.
Meanwhile, China and the United States form a community of interests. While the U.S. is the founder of today's international system, China is this system's rising nation. Like other east Asian states, the success of China's export-oriented economy benefited from the open American market. Since the end of the Cold War, China and the United States have remained in a position of non-direct competition during which China was neither capable nor interested in challenging U.S. global security dominance.
No longer just economic ambition
Economic development was China's core mission. Separating politics from economics effectively circumvented geopolitical pressure from the United States. The war against terrorism and China's inclusion in the World Trade Organization further strengthened the non-adversarial nature of their relationship and gave China more than a decade of strategic opportunity.
But the financial crisis made China realize that over-reliance on dollars and the American market would exacerbate the imbalance between China and the global economy, which isn't conducive to China's sustainable development. The huge foreign exchange reserves China has accumulated, its infrastructure development and its industrial foundation all potentially enable it to reshape Eurasia's economic order. Meanwhile, the success of the AIIB initiative means that it's becoming difficult for the United States to contain China geo-economically.
By advancing the idea that China is "throwing elbows" with small Asian countries, Washington is trying to divert focus from the Silk Road Economic Belt to the South China Sea, using the geopolitical contest to eliminate China's geo-economic efforts.
China doesn't excel at military and political games. It needs to review the South China Sea territorial dispute from a greater strategic vision. Apart from that issue, the United States won't be a bystander of the Silk Road initiative since it remains the world's primary security guarantor. Without a secured environment, it's impossible for China to put forward its Silk Road strategies. The two nations ought to divide their labors.
The AIIB demonstrates that China is capable of international influence. With the disputed South China Sea, China should seek the interpretation of international law and move away from being seen as geopolitically ambitious. If a consensus is reached through consultation of all parties, the better for China. Because its peaceful rise depends on peaceful coexistence.