Posted by: arbeam | December 19, 2013

Turbulence Ahead for U.S., China Ties

China’s foreign relations in modern times – particularly with the U.S. and Asian neighbors – have been guided by a doctrine of prudence embodied in Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim “taoguang, yanghui” – “bide our time; hide our capabilities.”

Mr. Deng correctly calculated that once the world understood the full implications of an emerging Asian giant, it would stir up anxieties and upset the external harmony that China needed to pursue its economic development. He was suspicious, too, that the U.S. secretly wanted to keep China down, and that the more it advertised its power, the more America would work on strategies to “contain” i an up-and-coming challengert. For now, Mr. Deng thought, it was best to keep a low profile.

But under President Xi Jinping, that long-standing caution has been very noticeably slipping.

Last month, China surprised the world when it declared an Air-Defense Identification Zone over a huge stretch of the East China Sea that is crisscrossed by commercial airliners. In itself, an ADIZ is no cause for concern: many countries have them as an extra security buffer outside their own airspace.

Yet the sudden way it was announced – Washington, apparently, got only a few minutes’ notice – and the fact that it covered rocky islands administered by Japan but claimed by China, making it look like part of a grab for disputed territory, signaled to many foreign-policy analysts that China is growing less concerned about how its actions are perceived.

SOUTH CHINA SEA (Oct. 24, 2013) The guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens (CG 63)

SOUTH CHINA SEA (Oct. 24, 2013) The guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens (CG 63)

Then, just a few days later, a U.S. Navy cruiser, the USS Cowpens, was forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision with a Chinese PLA navy vessel in the South China Sea, according to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. U.S. and Chinese ships have a history of tangling as China seeks to push the U.S. military away from its shores.

Still, foreign-policy analysts say, taken together these episodes underscore a fundamental turn in the behavior of a country that is shedding its inhibitions about displays of power as it grows in confidence. China, in short, is demonstrating that its patient wait to assert itself on a global stage is drawing to a close: Its moment has arrived.

A number of theories have been put forward to explain this change in China’s attitude. Among them, rising nationalism, a desire by Mr. Xi to appease hawks in the military, and a perceived need to divert public attention from domestic social unrest over issues from high-level corruption to land grabs and slowing economic growth.

In addition, the ADIZ fits in with China’s efforts to punch holes through what it calls the “first island chain” that stretches off its coast from Japan through Taiwan and the northern Philippines and blocks its access to the Pacific. What’s more, the military hardware that China has been developing for this purpose – most notably submarines and missiles – has reached a level of sophistication that is starting to influence U.S. strategic calculations.

China now feels it is dealing with the U.S. as an equal, and has no need to guard its intent.

All this has far-reaching consequences on China’s relations with the U.S. – often described as the most-important bilateral relationship in the world.

Already, the foundations of the relationship are shaky, which makes it more vulnerable to shocks. A recent survey of attitudes by the U.S. and Chinese publics and various elites – military, business, government, media and scholars – shows low levels of trust between the two powers. And while few on either side regard their countries as enemies – only 15% of the U.S. public, and 12% of China’s – there is a strong sense that they are competitors, not partners, according to the survey by think tanks in Beijing and Washington, including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The question now is what will happen as China’s new assertiveness rubs up against America’s hardened resolve to remain the dominant Pacific power – what the Obama administration once called the U.S. “pivot” to Asia.

Could mistrust morph into hostility? Could competition lead to conflict?

Fortunately, says Michael D. Swaine, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and one of the report’s authors, that point is still a ways off. “Neither side wants to become locked into a genuinely adversarial relationship,” he says.

Other positive factors include a high degree of economic interdependence that for better or worse ties together the fates of the two countries, a fair bit of mutual admiration (Americans, for instance, admire the Chinese work ethic; Chinese credit Americans with inventiveness), and a strong desire to improve the relationship.

But, Mr. Swaine adds, the “most important catalyst” for a souring of ties are China’s sovereignty disputes with U.S. allies and U.S. military activities along China’s coastline.

Still, China is ratcheting up its territorial demands and the U.S. has no intention of ceding its rights to sail the high seas, suggesting – at the very least – some turbulence ahead.

Andrew Browne, China Watch (Wall Street Journal), Dec 19




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